Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The CFA: Where It Makes Sense

MBAs in finance will often ask about the benefits of a CFA designation. Does it make sense? Will it propel my career? Can I learn something that will give me an advantage on the job or in my career? Are more and more employers requiring it? Or if I'm in transition, will it make a difference in getting attention and gaining an offer? Is it all worth the time, effort, and costs?

There are pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages in pursuing the CFA, if you have an MBA in finance already. And within Consortium and Consortium Finance Network circles, some have debated each side.

To help all sides in the ongoing discussion, CFN hosted a webinar Oct. 5, "The MBA and the CFA," to address these questions, to explain in depth what it means to pursue the CFA and to present data that show trends, growing popularity and greater demand for those who have it. (Click here to download the recording  or click here to view the slide deck.)

Charles Appeadu, Director of Sample Exam Development at the CFA Institute, was the featured presenter. "The CFA," he reminded webinar participants from across the country, "is regarded around the world." He added, "A lot of people think it's only about investments, but the content cuts across many fields. The content is deep and wide."

To prove the global reach of the CFA today, Appeadu said there are now over 99,000 people with CFA designations. About 67,000 are in the U.S., but a rapidly growing percentage of the total comes from other countries, reflecting the widespread regard for and attraction to the CFA from companies, investment funds, and financial institutions worldwide.

Appeadu said that once you have the CFA, "We (the CFA Institute) make sure you keep abreast of current knowledge and equip professionals with competence and integrity."

He presented statistics to show what those with CFAs do currently: About 22% are in portfolio managment, another 14% in securities analysis and research. About 4% are in investment banking. And 7% of CFAs globally are in C-level roles (CEO, CFO). More than a third are in positions that emphasize investment analysis, research or management in some form or another. In some of these roles, the CFA is either preferred or required.

Many CFAs, however, are in roles that may not require or may not have traditionally encouraged the CFA: consulting, risk management and accounting, for example. They have used the CFA not as a designation to meet requirements or to prove legitimacy in investment anlaysis, but as a knowledge base for other areas of finance.

Over 200,000 people are currently registered for the CFA--which means they are pursuing the CFA by preparing for one of the three levels of exams. Appeadu showed the trends of a growing number of registrants from foreign countries. (For now, most registrants are from the U.S.) Registrants have similarly expressed interest in a wide range of fields, indicating how they expect to use the CFA--from portfolio management to investment banking, corporate finance and consulting.

Webinar participants didn't hestitate to ask questions. Some wanted to know if there were scholarships to defray the costs of preparation (for the volumes of material required for study). There are, and many financial institutions support employees who express such interest. Some wanted to know whether the CFA Institute does or will ever provide an "MBA waiver," because of the overlap between MBA coursework and the CFA material. "No, but we get asked that question all the time," Appeadu said. One wanted to know if the CFA can be helpful in careers in commercial real estate.

Many wanted to know more about preparing for the three levels of exams. Appeadu said a candidate usually needs about 250 hours of studying for each exam, sometimes more. Candidates study the CFA-provided material, but they can seek and use supplementary sources. He emphasized the importance of preparing for the exams. On average for all three exams, the pass rate is about 42%, a rate that is fairly consistent among those who take it around the world and who have taken it over several decades. The same exam is given everywhere in English.

Appeadu, who has a Ph.D. in finance as well as the CFA, explained how the pass rate could be higher. Many candidates, he said, tend to be smart, well-educated and well-versed in finance and investments. They are also used to being successful and making swift progress in academics and careers. More confident than they should be, they, however, tend to underestimate the time and attention required to prepare for exams. "They sometime think they don't need to prepare as much," Appeadu said, "and then become overwhelmed."

In the exams, Level 1 focuses on knowledge. Level 2 is about analysis, and Level 3 is evaluation and synthesis. Levels 1 and 2 are multiple-choice questions (graded by computers). Level 3 includes essays graded by humans.

Registrants can take practice exams. Participants wanted to know if there is a relationship between performance on the practice exams and the real exams. There is a high correlation, but Appeadu reminded his audience there is no direct "causality," that if one does well in practice, then it doesn't mean he/she will do well on the exam.

For each exam, Appeadu explained, there is no consistent cut-off for the percentage number of questions an exam-taker must get correct. A committee of experienced experts each year determines what it thinks a "just qualified" candidate should know and how many a "just qualified" candidate should get right. That number can change from year to year, as exam questions and content change.

Because finance topics, issues and investment products evolve and get more complex, CFA content changes, too. The material covers ethics, risk management, new products, and may even cover topics such as Islamic finance.

Appeadu, who taught finance at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Georgia State, lamented the small number of registrants and CFA charter-holders from under-represented groups. He said there is no accurate data about minorities who hold the CFA (among the 99,000) and who are in the process of taking exams (among the 200,000). But the numbers are low. "We want that to improve," he said. The CFA Institute has embarked on initiatives to spread the word by making similar presentations around the country, even speaking to undergraduates at HBCU schools.

Appeadu weighed the pros and cons of the CFA and the MBA. (The CFA Institute didn't have information on how many of the 99,000 have MBAs.) Some will ask whether an MBA should get a CFA; others will ask differently: Should one pursue the CFA and not bother with the MBA? He showed the MBA's advantages of networks, connections, contacts with professors and corporate recruiters and the broad business curriculum covering operations, marketing, accounting and policy. He showed the CFA's advantages of costs (relative to MBA tuition) and specialized knowledge and expertise.

In the end, he said he was a proponent of both. "The MBA is a degree," he said. "The CFA is a designation." In many ways, he showed, both are about a lifetime of learning, keeping up and maintaining networks and industry ties.

Tracy Williams

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