The marketplace for financial planning and wealth management services has never been more dynamic, or more competitive. Over the past five years, banks, insurance companies and independent financial advisers have been touting all manner of new products and services and aggressively hiring professional financial planners. However, in the minds of the public, some mystery still surrounds what the sector actually does and where to obtain the best service or advice. A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Society of Registered Financial Planners (HKRFP), and led by chief project officer Simon Ho of Hong Kong Baptist University's School of Business, highlighted several key issues. Professor Ho's survey found that 55 per cent of those interviewed said they were familiar with the concept of financial planning and, of these, 25 per cent had consulted service providers. When it came to where they preferred to receive advice, more than 74 per cent opted for bank-related services, nearly 13 per cent said they chose insurance companies, and 6.6 per cent consulted independent financial-planning agencies. Despite the apparently limited degree of public awareness, it is expected that the number of people seeking financial-planning advice in Asia in the next 10 years will increase by 40 per cent, creating employment for at least 25,000 more financial planners. 'Today, there are more choices in the number and type of financial assets and instruments than a decade ago. Complex instruments are being promoted by banks, insurance companies and financial institutions,' said Sidney Sze, founder and president of the HKRFP. The organisation was established to regulate its members and act in the public interest by making a commitment to continuous education, examination and the enforcement of a code of ethics and professional responsibilities. 'As a profession we need to educate the public about what financial planning actually is and what contribution it can make to improving people's financial health and well-being,' Mr Sze said. To create greater awareness, an association consisting of at least 10 major independent financial advisers (IFAs) is being set up. Its aim will be to promote this category of service provider and give an opportunity for companies and organisations in different areas of the industry to speak with one voice. Mr Sze said the association would also act as a conduit to discuss issues such as fee-based advice versus commission on products sold as the basis for remuneration, and to highlight the need to study for recognised professional qualifications. He said the most obvious hurdle facing the financial planning industry was the system of regulation. At present, legislation focuses on the product and method of distribution, not on the advice process followed by an individual planner. Mr Sze said he would like to see financial planners obtain professional indemnity policies to offer protection to their clients. There are three major professional qualifications for the sector in Hong Kong: certified financial planner (CFP), registered financial planner (RFP) and chartered financial practitioner (FChFP). So far, about 4,000 of the estimated 20,000 practitioners in Hong Kong have one of these qualifications. Mr Sze said it was important to seek recognised qualifications in order to push the industry forward. He added that, compared to the US, Europe and Australia, financial planning is still a fledgling profession in Hong Kong with vast market potential. 'Anyone who is prepared to study for a recognised professional qualification will have an attractive range of opportunities to build a career which promises challenges and rewards,' he said. In his opinion, professionalism is the key to success. 'Practitioners will need to keep pace with the latest trends in global markets and acquire extra knowledge through regular skills training and continuous education,' he said. Just as members of the public seek medical or legal advice, they are increasingly seeking financial advice. To offer comprehensive assistance for clients who expect to discuss comprehensive wealth management options, financial planners must have the skills of an accountant, tax adviser, mutual fund agent, stockbroker, insurance agent and portfolio manager. They also require knowledge of the products at their disposal and the ability to put together tailor-made solutions for individuals. The HKRFP survey also found that Hong Kong people considered a financial planner's trustworthiness, knowledge and professional qualifications more important than whether they charge a fee or earn a commission on the products sold. Acquiring the professional qualification offered by the HKRFP is seen as one of the best ways for financial planning practitioners to upgrade their skills. Another option is to take the certificate in financial management offered by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which provides another avenue to obtain knowledge necessary to make career progress.