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Do you still need the CFA to work on Wall Street? Or is it all about Asia now?

The CFA exams are one of America's most successful exports. As Donald Trump looks around for ways to make America great again, he might want to cast an eye upon a series of exams first conceived by a Wall Street analyst in 1942, which this weekend will be sat by 227,031 candidates worldwide.

The success of the three CFA exams globally isn't all good news, though. This Saturday, just 28% of the candidates sitting the CFA will be in the Americas, down from 36% in 2011.  By comparison, 53% of candidates will be based in Asia.

Asia is where the big growth is: four of the CFA's seven new test centers for 2018 are there -  in Dalian and Hangzhou in China, Hyderabad in India, and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

The CFA Institute, which administers the exams, is all for it. In a press release today, it notes that there's been a "20% increase in exam registrations in the past year alone". Asian candidates have doubled since 2011; Americas candidates have risen 22% over the same period.

All growth is not necessarily good growth, however. Having begun their life as qualifications taken by portfolio managers and analysts on the buy-side, the CFA's exams had morphed into credentials for getting front office jobs in investment banks. And yet, the CFA's new candidates are increasingly being drawn from outside the world's major financial centers: candidates who pass the challenging exams in Dalian or Ulaanbaatar are unlikely to go on to work in M&A at J.P. Morgan.

Anecdotally, this can lead to disappointment once the exams are over. People claiming to be CFA Charterholders complain about a lack of improvement in their job prospects; one says he's been unemployed three years and is now teaching foreign languages for a living. In this way, are bubbles burst.

The underlying danger for the CFA Institute is that unless successful candidates put their CFA credentials to good use, the qualifications will become associated with aspiration in emerging markets rather than success in established financial centers like Wall Street and the City of London. Already, some people are suggesting that accounting qualifications or top MBAs are the better bet.

For the moment, though, the CFA Charter has one significant thing going for it when it comes to finding work on Wall Street. Thanks to the CFA's historic affiliation with the U.S., 46% of current CFA charterholders, or nearly 71,000 people are based in the Americas. Having spent at least 900 hours studying to pass all three exams, those U.S.-based charterholders are likely to look kindly on candidates who've done the same. If you want to work on Wall Street, therefore, passing the CFA exams still makes sense - but the exams' U.S. preeminence should not be taken for granted.

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ch
    Chris Tobe
    9 July 2018

    Maybe the high ethical standards of the CFA charter eliminate people from many Wall St. Jobs

  • Gu
    21 June 2018

    Great article @Sarah Butcher. Reminds me of how back in 2007, I met a good number of people who passed all three exams thinking they could switch from information technology to finance.

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