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Paul Smith arrives at our meeting in London exuding the relaxed air of someone back in familiar territory, despite having just stepped off a flight from his home in Hong Kong.
“I live in the Far East. I’ve worked three years in New York, four years in France, 19 years in Asia, but I’m from here,” he points out of the window. “I’m that rare beast these days, someone who was actually born in London.”
Being a global citizen is more of an advantage than being born in what is now the world’s most global city when it comes to running a body such as the CFA Institute, whose influence stretches across the planet.
The examination body has offices in eight countries and is responsible for setting international educational standards for investment professionals.
Mr Smith joined the institute in 2012 to help expand the education body’s Asia-Pacific operation before being promoted to the role of president and chief executive in January of this year.
He still helps run a fund management business, based in New York, but the fact that he is based in Hong Kong rather than the US was a distinct advantage in securing the top job at the CFA Institute, according to Mr Smith.
“The institute is a genuinely global organisation but we are largely, I think, known as American or US-centric,” he says. “That is partly because that is, obviously, where the financial markets are still driven out of, largely. I think the board of governors, which is our ultimate governance body, felt that we needed to do more to accentuate our globality.”
Heading the CFA Institute is an important responsibility because its chartered financial analyst (CFA) designation is seen as a gold standard for those pursuing an investment career.
Just shy of 160,000 candidates from 174 countries registered for the level I, II and III CFA exams that were taken this month, up by more than 10,000 on last year. A key part of Mr Smith’s role is to maintain the exams’ relevance in a market that has seen much soul searching since the 2008 financial crisis.
There has been a tightening in the regulation and ownership structures of many leading banks. At the same time technology is changing the way the industry operates and enabling new entrants to come in.
“Our biggest danger is irrelevance,” Mr Smith admits. “There is a substantial effort on our part to try to make sure that the curriculum is current, is relevant to industries’ requirements.”
Ethics has become more of a focus given the financial scandals of recent years. “This has always been central to our curriculum and this has not changed,” Mr Smith says. “The amount of time we spend talking about ethics has risen exponentially, though. Necessarily and regrettably so.”
Despite the status of the CFA qualification, it remains a challenge to encourage people to sign up to what is a three-year programme of study, covering three levels with 3,000 pages of curriculum for each one, Mr Smith admits.
One way to solve this would be to have financial executives to view their continuing professional training in the same way as lawyers and doctors, Mr Smith suggests.
“One of the things that’s always thrown at the CFA is it is a very hard qualification and it is demanding,” he says.
“The problem is that it is a lot of studying and if you are not supported in that study by the business that you work for, your chances of passing the exam are significantly reduced.”
Research by the CFA Institute has found a that there is direct correlation between those businesses that allow their employees to take time off to study and their pass rates, Mr Smith notes.
“It’s not the technically demanding nature of the exams that are really the problem, it’s the industry’s attitude to training,” he says.
“Employers say we’ll pay for you to study the CFA but do it after you’ve worked a 12-hour shift, when you’ve gone home to a wife or a husband who may be upset with you because you’ve been away for the last 12 hours.
“You may also have a young child and a mortgage and all of these things, but we would like you to sit down and read your CFA curriculum. It’s not helpful,” he adds.
The CFA Institute recommends that all investment professionals should have started on its exams within 12 months of starting employment, but Mr Smith believes that you are never too old to start or finish your training.
He should know, having passed his CFA qualification 15 years ago when he was 40.
“Knowledge is good for its own sake and for me the charter [CFA qualification] helped consolidate and refresh my industry knowledge at a time of my career when I needed to challenge myself,” he says.