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ACA, ACCA or CIMA – which is best if you want to break into investment banking?

Back in the day, it was a sad fact of life that ACAs were given preferential treatment by investment banks recruiting accountants over those armed with competing qualifications, such as the ACCA and CIMA. But has the playing field slowly become more level?

The cold, hard facts

The employment figures we’ve obtained from the ICAEW, the ACCA and CIMA unfortunately don’t allow for completely like-for-like comparisons, but still offer an insight into your chances of breaking into banking with each of the qualifications.

Banking and capital markets employs the largest proportion of qualified ACAs, with 14% working in the sector on an average salary of 97.8k. CIMA tells us that 2,600 of its members are employed by investment banks globally (or around 3.3% of its 79,757 members as at 2009), while the ACCA says that 7,000 members (or 11%) work in financial services, but it was unable to specify how many work in investment banking.

The official line

Rather obviously, none of the institutes we spoke to were willing to concede that other qualifications are better suited for a career in investment banking, but instead attempted to extol the virtues of undertaking their exams.

“The ACA is still seen as the qualification to hold by those recruiting in the investment banking sector,” says Hazel Garvey, head of business development at the ICAEW. “People often accuse it of being all about audit, but in reality it offers a broad background in all accounting and business issues, and offers an excellent platform for moving into investment banking.”

The global nature of the ACCA qualification – 72% of members and students are based outside of the UK – is one of the major selling points, suggests Andrew Leck, head of ACCA UK.

“For both the employer and the trainee, the portability of the qualification makes it very attractive in the current economic climate,” he says. “What’s more, the commercial and business skills learnt throughout the qualification are in line with the current demands of employers within investment banking.”

Meanwhile, one of the major selling points of the CIMA qualification is the potential it offers for a move into a front office role, argues Peter Simons of the CIMA education team.

“As a management accountant you could find yourself working alongside colleagues in the front office and senior management. Your ability to provide analysis of, for example, customer profitability, product economics or a team’s performance will enhance your credibility,” he argues.

Where the demand is now

As we’ve alluded to previously, CIMA students have become surprisingly desirable again this year including within product control – a job role usually reserved for ACA candidates.

“Due to reduced numbers of training contracts issued in 2008, there are fewer newly qualified ACA’s on the market currently, which means investment banks are being more flexible with their preferred qualifications,” says Neil Owen, director of Robert Half Financial Services Group. “The ACCA and CIMA have also attracted a higher calibre of candidates in recent years, and we’re seeing some good people applying.”

He adds that ACAs are still very much preferred for technical accounting rules, such as those around IFRS 9 accounting rules. CIMA, meanwhile, was seen as an advantage as more banks start “commercialising” their finance teams.

“There’s a very high demand for ACAs within internal audit, financial control and product control, whereas banks tend to favour ACCAs or CIMAs for management accounting, financial analysis, planning and business performance measurement positions” adds Chris Wells, senior manager at Morgan McKinley.

Comments (6)

Comments
  1. I don’t think the actual qualifications themselves are what’s relevant here. There is so much syllabus overlap between ACA, ACCA and CIMA that anyone holding any of the three will have studied enough material to do any of the mid/back office roles banks are hiring for.

    What is relevant is previous job experience. Big Four accountants tend to have the ACA whereas management accounts from industry are more likely to have CIMA (not sure about the background for ACCAs.). Hence the pattern in hiring. I can’t imagine a bank turning down a candidate because they had CIMA rather than ACA, but I can imagine them turning down a candidate for (say) internal audit because they have less auditing experience.

    Of course as far as front office goes the qualifications are doubly irrelevant. No qualifications are required at all and staff are more likely to be studying for the CFA, if anything. There are plenty of ACAs/ACCAs/CIMAs in the front office but they didn’t strictly need the qualification to get them there.

  2. ACA/ACCA/CIMA just tells the hiring manager you’ve gone through the theory, passed the exam. Still doesn’t compensate for anything if you don’t have the relevant experience or your CV communicates you’re nothing special

  3. So if you had the relevant experience, what would you suggest between acca/cima/cfa or even caia now that you have decided to obtain a professional qualification under your belt (non degree educated)

  4. It’s true that experience counts for more than the qualifications themselves.

    I would say from my experience as a qualified CIMA, trying to move into IB, my chances in roles such as financial planning and analysis haven’t been any less than my ACA or ACCA counterparts and when I have looked at roles in product control, the one thing barring me from entering this field is lack of sufficient product experience (something, I am currently working on).

    However, when it comes to the front office (especially areas such as M&A), I have seen that ACA has that advantage over ACCA and CIMA. I believe that the reason for this, is that the Big 4 firms tend to stock their Corp. Finance and Transactions departments, almost entirely with ACAs.

    This leads to IB Front Office job specs, especially in M&A usually stating under their requirements “Must be an Investment Banker with prior M&A experience or an ACA with previous Transactions experience from a Big 4 firm.”

  5. Any day any time i still go for CIMA as the qualification that is needed in this current dispensation bc of strategy in finance, enterprise and performance. all other technical finance i can get software in the market. Its strategy that wins in the mkt place and that is what modern business needs.

  6. I hate to say this but comparing these qualifications is the not more meaningful than comparing which coffee shop serves better lattes ( Starbucks, Costa, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf?!?!). All 3 qualifications are awarded by globally recognized accountancy bodies. Although ACA is more an apple to the eye of an IB recruiter, that is because entry requirement for the ACA route is a degree (2.1 honors degree) and degree holders are typical targets of IB hirers. Unlike MBAs, these qualifications are simply generic professional certifications you want to add to resume to display to your prospective employer your skillsets. All the statistics in the marketing fluffs are just biased as the reason I have provided above!

    If I have Harvard MBA, do you think the employer will doubt my ability to handle an analyst or IBA role. The doors of Goldman Sachs will be wide open for me! If you want branding, do the top MBAs, else just go for the qualification that best suit your needs and stop those meaningless comparisons.

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