An investment manager with more than three decades hands-on experience, Gary Baker recently opted for a career change. Having worked as an equity analyst for thoroughbred companies across the globe, Baker last year became managing director of the CFA Institute for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Within the financial services industry, those three letters after your name – CFA, standing for Chartered Financial Analyst – are worth having. Earned after a series of famously gruelling exams, often taken while holding down a demanding job, “charter-holder” status indicates genuine knowledge and ability not just in mathematics, accounting and data analysis, but also a firm grasp of ethics and law.
Having gained his own CFA in 1997, Baker now wants to “give something back”. The financial services industry “has had a dreadful press since the global financial crisis, having lost public confidence,” he says. “Yet finance remains a vital industry, the cornerstone of everything else that happens – and the CFA Institute’s mission is to win back trust by raising industry standards and supporting the interests of the individual investor”.
As well as upholding professional standards, CFA Institute also works with universities, encouraging students to analyse, objectively and scientifically, publicly-listed companies. These efforts come together in the annual CFA Research Challenge – a competition which began 11 years ago in the US but is now held worldwide.
The global final of the CFA Research Challenge was held in Prague in early May – where, ahead of the EBRD meetings, I caught up with Baker. After numerous national and regional rounds over the previous months, teams from some 1,100 universities across over 80 countries had been whittled down to the final four – representing Norway, Singapore, the US and the Dominican Republic.
Each team, featuring a handful of suited students, makes a detailed 10-minute “buy, sell or hold” investment case for a particular stock. That’s followed by a 10-minute grilling by a panel of expert judges – up on stage, facing a packed conference hall as the competition is live-streamed around the world.
“CFA has a strong reputation for setting tough exams which test hard skills like data analysis,” says Baker. “But professional life is also about thinking on your feet, reacting, connecting, persuading – the soft skills are important too”.
While some Research Challenge contestants may end up in finance, even gaining CFA status, Baker insists the experience is useful whatever path they take. “Learning about preparation, teamwork and handling quick-fire questioning is useful, whether you’re in finance or not”.
Baker is upbeat about the EMEA region – and not only because it’s already home to over a fifth of the 142,000 CFA-holders across the world. “With some stability in commodity prices and stronger economic trends in key Eurozone countries, the growth outlook across the EBRD’s operational area looks more optimistic,” says Baker. “That’s tempered, though, by continuing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, Eastern Ukraine and Turkey”.
As a keen follower of politics in his native UK, and with longstanding contacts across the City of London, Baker also reflects on the failure to date of Britain and the rest of the EU to agree the post-Brexit status of the 3m UK-based EU citizens – not least those working in financial services. “The potential fallout from Brexit on the expat populations of many Central and East European countries within the UK stands as a significant unknown,” he says.
For his part, Baker remains pleased to have made the leap from front-line finance to instead helping to develop the human capital underpinning the financial services industry of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “The chance to be part of an organisation playing an active role in raising financial awareness, building market integrity and developing ethical and professional standards across these 40 counties was a huge attraction”.
Despite that, when the tiny Barna Business School from the Dominican Republic were crowned 2017 CFA Institute Research Challenge world champions in Prague earlier this month, Baker was cheering as loudly as anyone.
Liam Halligan is Editor-at-Large of bne IntelliNews. Follow him on Twitter @liamhalligan