Pursuit of wealth
Liang Hui often goes to bed after 2 am.
He is constantly buried in books about investment planning, employee benefits, retirement, tax and legacy. He has too much learn, and too little time, especially to sleep.
Liang, a 31-year-old marketing manager at Shanghai-based Aegon-CNOOC Life Insurance, is one of the more than 500 financial practitioners busy preparing for the first associate financial planner (AFP) examination in China. The exam will be held in the middle of this month.
"My classmates are all very diligent," Liang said. He had recently completed a 45-day training programme in Beijing to prepare for the AFP exam.
"In a sense, we have to compete against each other."
A minority of the participants will pass the exam, as the judging will be quite stringent to ensure only the highest quality people receive certificates.
If he is lucky enough to pass, Liang will become the first insurance practitioner in the Chinese mainland to receive AFP designation, which, awarded by the Financial Planning Standards Council of China (FPSCC), is a local diploma for qualified financial planners in China and a prerequisite to the higher-level certified financial planner (CFP) certificate that is accepted globally.
FPSCC will be authorized to grant CFP designation in the Chinese mainland when it becomes an affiliate member of international organization Financial Planning Standards Board (FPSB), which has certified more than 45,000 CFPs globally.
That membership should be approved before long, suggests Cai Zhongzhi, FPSCC's secretary-general.
Financial planning, which is a mature profession in developed countries, is still a new concept in China.
Cai defines financial planner as an adviser that "plans the future of the clients."
A financial planner can be a personal financial services manager of a bank, an investment consultant, an accountant or an insurance broker. The basic role of a financial planner is helping individuals and households manage their fortunes and make financial plans for the future.
Cai, who has held senior positions in the People's Bank of China, the nation's central bank, CITIC Industrial Bank and Hong Kong-based CITIC Ka Wah Bank, feels China's market for financial planning is dynamic, as the country's personal wealth accumulates and the demand for professional financial advice increases.
Although the present product range for wealth management is still limited as China's securities, banking and insurance institutions are not allowed to step into each other's businesses compared with mature markets, Cai believes the future market potential is enormous, especially as the Chinese economy expands and integrates into the global market.
"We have to look into the future and get ready now," Cai suggests.
Chinese banks, including the big four State-owned banks, realize the importance of training more qualified professionals to better serve retail clients.
Several banks, including China Construction Bank, Bank of China, China Everbright Bank and China Minsheng Banking Corp, have organized their personal banking managers to participate in the AFP training and examination.
Many of the banks' employees have signed up for future courses. Some insurance firms and securities companies have expressed interest in the programme, Cai said.
It is not easy to secure a space in the programme.
Liu Yan, deputy manager of personal banking at CCB's branch in East China's Fujian Province, is one of the 63 CCB employees that recently completed the AFP training in Beijing.
They had been picked from more than 1,000 applicants within the bank after a series of examinations. Yet, the tough part was still to come.
"It (the AFP training programme) has been the busiest part of my life," Liu said.
He has worked for CCB for 11 years. "I have never felt so much pressure before."
Like Liang Hui, sleeping late has been common for Liu. They have had to learn the contents of the textbooks which could take a year for most college students in less than two months.
"But the pressure also pushes us," Liu says. "We also have a stronger sense of responsibility."
Another CCB manager, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the biggest gains from the training were the ability to observe things from a broader perspective, and learning the advanced ideology of financial planning.
"It is good that I have also learnt much non-banking knowledge. I may not be able to use all that I learnt immediately, but it lays a solid basis for my future work, and it broadens my sight," she says.
Systematic training is badly needed for the future financial planners in China's financial institutions, which, facing mounting competition from global financial groups, have much work to catch up, in terms of expertise, product diversity, service quality and even human resource management.
Banks, which have always held most of the country's financial resources, have been most eager to change.
Personalized services and good ethics are essential elements to attract retail clients, says Justin Ting, manager of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)'s Beijing branch.
Presently, the bank can only offer Chinese retailers foreign exchange services, due to policy restrictions. It has only two outlets in Beijing.
So, the range of its financial planning services is much narrower than that in overseas markets, such as Hong Kong.
But HSBC, together with other foreign banks, will enjoy equal business and customer scope with Chinese banks by the end of next year, as China implements its World Trade Organization commitments to further open the banking sector.
By then, retail banking, especially geared towards high-end customers, will be a main field of competition.
A major principle that HSBC's personal relationship managers must follow is never hard sell clients, Ting says.
They must put clients' interests first and explain to them the exact risks for each investment product. And it may take a long time to educate a potential customer before he/she decides to use the services.
A personal relationship manager is not just promoting products. In Hong Kong, he or she may perform many other services such as sending flowers to clients that are sick and checking the educational information for the clients' children to maintain a good relationship, Ting says.
Similar rules apply to financial advisers in other businesses.
Often, financial planners sell products and have to use many sales techniques, but they should not just focus on the sales or yields of the products, Liang Hui says.
They need to make objective plans for clients rather than thinking too much of their personal gains, Liang adds.
Need for self-discipline
Liang Hui has already received about a dozen financial certificates from domestic and international agencies, including nine insurance-related certificates granted by LOMA, an international association of insurance and financial businesses.
"Such studies guide me to advanced overseas expertise that is not available in China," he says.
But, some times, the comprehensive courses and training can be dazzling.
Over the past two years, many overseas certification and training programmes involving financial planning and wealth management have landed in China, as relevant market demand has increased.
Those programmes have included CWM (chartered wealth management), RFP (registered financial planner) and RFC (registered financial consultant).
Some financial practitioners have used such certificates to enhance their personal images.
"But it is irrational to participate in such training just for the sake of a certificate," says an insurance broker from American International Assurance (AIA) in Beijing, who has participated in several training programmes, but has found the costs to be daunting.
Interested persons should focus on learning the advanced concepts of financial planning and applying them in practice, says the broker, who refused to be named.
(China Daily 05/09/2005 page5)
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