Structure of the Financial System
Let’s take a broad look at how the financial system is set up and why so many financial services jobs exist to support saving and spending activities.
- The financial system helps link savers, including individuals, companies, and governments who have money to invest with spenders who need money to achieve a variety of goals
- Most often, investors cannot analyze, plan, and execute all saving and spending activities on their own, so intermediaries (i.e., financial services professionals) are needed to support these activities either directly or indirectly.
- Within the financial system, the investment management industry offers a range of products and services to savers and spenders to channel funds between them. Investments can be made in a wide range of assets, including real assets (e.g., land, buildings, machinery, cattle, gold, forests, etc.) and financial instruments (e.g. shares, debt securities, mutual funds, etc.)
- Financial services intermediaries can also play an important role in the areas of corporate management and strategy, such as planning mergers and acquisitions or assisting with capital raising for startups; they can be key in minimizing risk for institutions across many organizations, from hedge funds to commercial banks; and they can be advocates for ethics and compliance with laws and regulations in their clients' industries.
Jobs in Finance: Types of Career Opportunities
Quantitative & Analytical Roles
Buy-Side vs. Sell-Side Jobs: What's the Difference?
You may be familiar with the descriptors "buy side" or "sell side" to describe investment firms. Knowing the difference between these two groups may help you to narrow your financial career search to jobs that fit your interests.
The buy side is comprised of institutional investors that seek to deploy capital into a wide variety of assets, such as equities (stocks), fixed income (bonds), real estate, infrastructure, etc. Using the language of "savers" and "spenders", this side deals more with the savers, including both retail investors (individuals) and institutional investors (pension plans, endowment funds, foundations, etc.).
The sell-side is the part of the industry that is involved with the creation and sale of securities, primarily providing investment products and services. The sell side works for the companies they represent (e.g., an investment banker advising a company) and the investors they serve (e.g., a trader transacting on behalf of another investor). The major institutions on this side of the street are generally big banks.
The buy-side/sell-side classification does not apply to all firms in the investment industry. In addition, the buy-side/sell-side classification is somewhat arbitrary and not easily applied to many large, integrated firms. For example, many investment banks have divisions or wholly owned subsidiaries that provide investment management services, which are buy side. These functions are on the buy side, even though investment banks are sell-side firms.
Front, Middle, and Back of Office Roles
Another set of terms you may encounter in financial job descriptions is "front office", "middle office" or "back office". These terms are used to roughly group the major activities that happen within sell-side firms. The terms front office, middle office, and back office are generally not used when describing buy-side firms. However, the main departments of buy-side investment management firms are similar to those of sell-side firms. These departments include sales and client relations, investment research and portfolio management, trading, compliance, accounting, and administration.
Client-facing activities that provide direct revenue generation
Core support activities that enable the firm’s services to be carried out successfully
Houses the administrative and support functions necessary to run the firm
Trading, Portfolio Management, Sales, Customer Service
Risk Management, Information Technology (IT), Corporate Finance, Portfolio Management, Research
(especially if these departments do not interact directly with clients)
Accounting, Human Resources, Payroll, Operations
Some practitioners consider the trading department to be a front-office activity, especially if the traders regularly interact with clients. Some consider research to be a front-office activity because it generates revenue from clients.
On the buy side, the front office also includes the portfolio managers, private equity / real estate directors and their analysts. They are the ones who ultimately are making the investment decisions.
IT activities are particularly important because most firms in the investment industry need to process and retrieve vast quantities of data efficiently and accurately. Risk management activities are also critical because they help ensure that the firm and its clients are not intentionally, inadvertently, or fraudulently exposed to excessive risk.
For brokerage firms and banks that provide custodial services, the accounting department is especially important because it is responsible for clearing and settling trades and for keeping track of who owns what.
Financial Education: Majors & Degrees
How to Break into Finance from an Unrelated Field
Making a career change from an unrelated field to a finance job is not impossible, but you will need to familiarize yourself with the finance industry and financial regulations to improve your chances of success when applying. Whether you aim to work in an investment bank, commercial bank, hedge fund, investment firm, or in the finance department of an organization, you'll need to understand how financial markets work.
Finance Skills: Are My Talents a Good Fit?
The following skills are commonly transferrable across most finance roles, regardless of their buy side vs. sell side designation or where they might sit in a front, middle, or back office schematic.
- Interpersonal communication
- Attention to detail
- Teamwork and relationship building
- Analytical competency and critical thinking
- Knowledge of global current events
- Understanding of the financial system
Use the table below to see common financial, communication, and analytical skill sets that are more particular to the job divisions we outlined above:
Quantitative & Analytical Job Skills
- Statistical inference
- Financial modeling
- Financial risk analysis
- Python programming
- R programming
- Data visualization
- SQL querying
- Database architecture
- Machine learning techniques
- Project management capabilities
- Cross-functional teamwork
- Workflow process management
- Explaining complex concepts to a non-expert audience
Client-Facing Job Skills
- Investment strategy & processes
- Performance measurement & risk management
- Familiarity with financial analysis tools
- Public speaking
- Using data to tell a story
- Emotional intelligence
- Expertise in client's sector
- Awareness of regulatory environment
- Commitment to ethical best practices
Transaction-Focused Job Skills
Financial Transaction Knowledge
- Understanding of markets & exchanges
- Portfolio management & execution
- Knowledge of asset classes & investment vehicles
- Entrepreneurial mindset with enthusiasm for driving profit
- Willingness to work hours that correlate to global market openings & closings
- Comfort working in fast-paced environments
Other Key Skills
- Analytical & problem-solving skills
- Project management
- Interpersonal skills
- Meticulous recordkeeping
Learn More about How CFA Institute Can Help You Begin and Advance in a Career in Finance
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How Can the CFA Program Help You?
The CFA® Program curriculum is designed to provide you with the expertise and real-world skills in investment analysis that will help you begin or advance your career in finance. Candidates take on the CFA® Program exams for the final, prized result: becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). The CFA charter confirms your mastery of investment concepts and dedication to promoting ethics in the financial sector.