Are you taking the CFA in Asia for the right reasons or the wrong reasons?

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Are you a finance professional in Asia looking to start the CFA? Before you commit to spending hundreds of hours studying over the next three years, it’s worth considering whether the CFA will actually boost your career within your current or desired job function.

The graph below shows the top roles for CFA “charterholders” – people who have passed all three levels of the qualification – in Singapore and Hong Kong, ranked as a percentage of the total charterholder population for each city.

While the CFA is most beneficial in two functions requiring the most technical knowledge of markets – portfolio management and research analysis – it’s also surprisingly popular within an essentially sales-focused role, relationship management. These charterholder RMs aren’t only working on the buy-side, however – they’re also increasingly found in private banking (despite the MBA still being the qualification of choice in that sector), says Jay Abeyasinghe, a manager at recruiters Morgan McKinley in Singapore.

There’s also a comparatively high proportion (6%) of risk managers within the ranks of charterholders in Singapore and Hong Kong. “Market and credit risk especially require strong quantitative skills and product knowledge, so the CFA is becoming more popular,” says Abeyasinghe.

The CFA could ultimately help you reach senior management in Asia, too – C-level executives make up 6% charterholders in both Singapore and Hong Kong.

There's a disconnect between CFA candidates and the jobs done by charterholders 

The prevalence of fully-fledged CFA charterholders within the above job functions doesn’t necessarily mean that “candidates” for the qualification – people who are still studying and haven’t yet passed the final Level III exam – are also working in these sectors, as the data below shows.

Accountants and auditors form the largest candidate group, at 15% and 13% in Hong Kong and Singapore respectively, yet in terms of charterholders they don’t make the top rankings in Singapore and their percentage is almost cut in half in Hong Kong.

Many accountant CFA candidates in Asia are attempting to use the qualification as a route into a better paid client-facing job, says Carol Cheung, associate director, financial services, at recruiters Robert Walters in Hong Kong. But taking the CFA with this move in mind is risky. “Many candidates are unsuccessful in their attempts to achieve these ambitions as the competition for front-office roles is fierce,” adds Christine Wright, managing director of Hays in Asia.

Similarly, while it’s common enough to find consultants cramming for the CFA right now – 7% in Singapore and 6% in Hong Kong – their job function doesn’t feature in the charterholder list above, suggesting that the qualification might not be the best option to advance their careers either.

The rigours of the CFA exams – most people fail them – might help explain why the jobs of candidates and charterholders don’t always align, adds Cheung. If the CFA is a nice-to-have rather than a technical requirement of the role (think consultancy or auditing where MBAs and accounting qualifications respectively are more important) then candidates are generally less motivated to slog through all three levels.

Research analysts, risk managers and relationship managers in Asia appear to be undertaking the CFA for all the right reasons – their job sectors are full of charterholders and candidates alike.

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