July 23, 2024
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AI in finance is like ‘moving from typewriters to word processors’

The accounting and finance professions have long adapted to technology — from calculators and spreadsheets to cloud computing. However, the emergence of generative artificial intelligence presents both new challenges and opportunities for students looking to get ahead in the world of finance.

Research last year by investment bank Evercore and Visionary Future, which incubates new ventures, highlights the workforce disruption being wreaked by generative AI. Analysing 160mn US jobs, the study reveals that service sectors such as legal and financial are highly susceptible to disruption by AI, although full job replacement is unlikely.

Instead, generative AI is expected to enhance productivity, the research concludes, particularly for those in high-value roles paying above $100,000 annually.

But, for current students and graduates earning below this threshold, the challenge will be navigating these changes and identifying the skills that will be in demand in future.

Generative AI is being swiftly integrated into finance and accounting, by automating specific tasks. Stuart Tait, chief technology officer for tax and legal at KPMG UK, describes it as a “game changer for tax”, because it is capable of handling complex tasks beyond routine automation.

“Gen AI for tax research and technical analysis will give an efficiency gain akin to moving from typewriters to word processors,” he says. The tools can answer tax queries within minutes, with more than 95 per cent accuracy, Tait says.

While such advances present challenges for workers, including potentially making some tasks and skills redundant, they also offer opportunities. Simon Stephens, AI lead for audit and assurance at Deloitte UK, says: “One way it will help is by automating large portions of manual data entry, saving time whilst allowing people to focus on more value-added and often more interesting tasks.” He suggests junior staff could en­gage in more complex, discerning work earlier in their careers.

In response to these changes, financial training programmes are evolving to place a much sharper emphasis on AI. David Shrier, professor of practice in AI and innovation at London’s Imperial College Business Schoolobserves: “We absolutely need finance education to produce students who are fit for purpose in this new world.”

HEC Parisfor instance, already trains students to use generative AI for financial data analysis. Soon, it will be used for decision-making, too. It is about readying them for the “possibility that gen-AI will replace spreadsheets”, notes Evran Örs, academic director of HEC’s Master in International Finance programme.

Similarly, Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK has introduced technical courses and recruited specialist practitioners for its Master of Finance degree, aimed at professionals with work experience. Marwa Hammam, co-director of the programme, notes that all students now cover the foundational concepts of machine learning and its practical applications in trading, asset management, accounting, and auditing.

Beyond technical abilities such as data analysis, however, soft skills such as critical thinking, leadership, and networking are increasingly important for finance professionals, experts say.

Angela Gallo, director of the banking and international finance MSc at Bayes Business School in London, stresses the enduring relevance of interpersonal skills in a more automated sector. “While automation has improved efficiency, it has sometimes sacrificed client relationships,” she says. “AI could restore the importance of those relationships.”

Gérard Despinoy, executive director of the Master in Finance at France’s Essec Business Schoolsuggests finance graduates should strengthen their programming skills, particularly in VBA, Java, R or Python. Mastery of these languages can streamline financial analysis, automate routine tasks, and enable the development of fresh financial solutions, he says.

Students can acquire these skills through coursework, industry certifications, and online learning platforms. Andrew Harding, chief executive of management accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, highlights the importance of life-long professional development to stay competitive in an evolving job market: “Accounting and finance professionals must adapt their mindset to learn, unlearn, and relearn,” he says.

The integration of AI is also creating new roles and career paths. Marc Chapman, a career consultant at Essec, cites jobs such as algorithmic trader and AI financial analyst, in which machine learning could be used to pore over financial data, predict market trends, and automate processes. “There should be interesting career opportunities with banks seeking to boost efficiency using digitisation,” says Chapman.

Looking ahead, experts stress the importance of long-term career planning and being adapt­able to technological changes. But students of finance should not discount the basics. “The core competencies of accounting and finance professionals will still matter in the future,” says Harding. “Technologies like AI are tools for professionals to use as powerful co-pilots, not replacements.”

Indeed, many experts agree that these technological advances should be considered as opportunities for growth. As Feng Li, professor and chair of information management at Bayes Business School in London, notes: “AI is a long way from automating jobs. The future belongs to those who can use AI to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.”

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