As recently as 2012 there were ‘only’ 30,112 people sitting CFA exams in China. This year the mainland numbers have breached the 50,000 mark for the first time and the CFA is becoming increasingly popular across Asia.
Could this put the CFA’s exclusivity at risk in the region? Nick Pollard, a former Coutts banker who was appointed APAC managing director of the CFA Institute in April, doesn’t think so.
Passing all three levels of the CFA is difficult and time consuming, so the recent surge in exam takers isn’t immediately leading to a corresponding rise in ‘charterholders’, people who hold the designation. There are just 3,544 of them in China, fewer than in Hong Kong (6,903) or Singapore (3,665).
“The qualification grew from the US and then expanded into Europe, and finally into Asia, so the charterholder numbers aren’t as strong here yet,” says Pollard.
But he expects them to steadily increase. “I don’t think we should place an upper limit on charterholders in Asia. The ultimate goal would actually be to have 100% coverage of every relevant employee in every firm in the investment industry.”
“Hong Kong has the largest number of charterholders in Asia, which is a good thing for the finance sector there. And we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the designation to building a credible investment industry and a credible workforce in emerging Asian markets like Vietnam,” says Pollard.
Why has the CFA programme become so popular so quickly in Asia?
“It’s partly down to the underlying growth in the financial sector. And Asian governments, including Beijing, are focused on expanding the local talent pool. Practically every 25-year-old in Asia who wants a career in investment management now recognises the importance of the qualification,” says Pollard.
He adds: “The credential is globally recognised so it has a passporting effect, helping charterholders in Asia to work overseas. Global credibility is a very strong motivator for people in Asia to do the CFA program, whether they want to stay at home or travel.”
The CFA Institute still faces large challenges in Asia, however. “Some of the larger institutions in Asia already completely understand the importance of the CFA designation – in fact many insist on it for some jobs. But others are less aware of it,” he adds.
Compared to the US and Europe, fewer employers in Asia fund the cost of the CFA program or give staff time off to study. “We have to make it clear that if they help their employees in these ways, they will see the benefits.”
Pollard says the CFA exams are more difficult to pass for Asian finance professionals whose first language isn’t English. “But English is the language of the global investment industry and the key strength of the qualification is that it’s a global standard. It’s a tough exam and we’re not going to drop our standards.”
“We go to great lengths to make sure the English we use isn’t ambiguous – there aren’t any tricks in there with the wording; it’s not an English test.”