Donald Sterling and the CFA as the Great Equalizer



Last week reminded me of an often overlooked benefit of the CFA exams and the designation itself.

First we saw the blowup by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, in a taped conversation with his mistress. I won’t repeat the racist remarks by Mr. Sterling that led to his lifetime ban from the NBA and will mean the forced sell of the Clippers basketball team. The tirade still shows the amount of prejudice and unwarranted hate that many harbor for another simply because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

Income inequality seemed to be a theme in the news last week as well. Whether it was universal or just related to other things I was looking at on the internet, I was struck by the number of studies and news reports I saw about income disparity around the world. The gap between the richest and poorest earners seems to be widening and its not only in the United States or other developed countries. I read studies on Latin America, China and for income inequality in Africa and they all seem to point to a widening gap.

Lady Justice and the CFA

It all reminded me of a benefit to the CFA program that most overlook and one of the things I respect most of the program and its charterholders. Like Lady Justice, standing blindfolded to judge right and wrong, the CFA program does not care if you were born with a trust fund or if all you have are the people you trust.

The fact that you pull up to the exam center in a shiny new Jaguar F-Type convertible or ride up on a donkey matters little to your score on the test. In fact, the Institute spent nearly $4 million in the twelve-months to August 2013 on needs- and merit-based scholarships to the program. While some of the wealthiest people in our industry hold the charter, i.e. Bill Gross and Mario Gabelli, it is not because they were able to buy the designation. They had to work for it just like everyone else.

The CFA exam is the same wherever you take it, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There are 137 CFA societies in 59 countries and charterholders in every corner of the map. Growth of candidate enrollment in Asia and Africa has been running in the double-digits for several years as growth in the United States and Europe slows. The curriculum does not care about the color of your skin or the ethnicity you claim.

With all those prayers of passing the exams, organized religion may owe a debt of gratitude to the CFA program but the program itself doesn’t care if you pray to one God or many. It doesn’t care if you spend your Sundays reading a religious book or the five books covering the curriculum.

The CFA charter is the great equalizer in our industry. I am not saying that no one in the industry harbors the same prejudices and faults that are found in the general population but the designation is a standard that we can all reach to as just and fair. Earning the designation is a badge of your hard work and professionalism, something that people will notice immediately when they meet you. It is the scale by which all are judged not by the strength of their pocketbook but by the strength of their studying.

Less than five weeks to the exams. We are coming up to the point for which you’ve worked so hard these last couple of months. Stay strong and study hard.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Level III Essay Review – Question #2 2013 Exam



This post works through the second essay question on last year’s CFA level 3 exam. If you have not yet downloaded the exam and the guideline answers provided by the CFA Institute, do so here.

The second question on last year’s CFA level 3 essay exam was worth 15 points, a little over 4% of the entire test, and covered topics with which candidates often have a hard time. The four parts, each worth three or four points, cover estate planning and taxes. They are topics in which many candidates have not had much exposure and the curriculum includes a lot of legal points that can be difficult to remember.

The vignette material is relatively small so there isn’t too much information to handle. As always, I read through the material and highlighted data and important points before looking at the questions. Within the material, the investor’s age and any numerical data is usually pretty important as well as any preferences.

Part A was fairly straight forward from the text. The wife is entitled to one of two percentages of the estate, either the 25% of total assets or the 50% of the increase in the estate during the marriage.

As always, remember to show ALL YOUR CALCULATIONS on essay questions. The question was worth 4 points and I bet you would have gotten at least two points if you wrote out the calculations for both percentages even if you ultimately picked the wrong one.

Usually these heirship rules will be spelled out on the exam but make sure you understand the basic concepts and terms for estate planning.

Part B is an important one to study for this year’s candidates. Questions on trusts have come up frequently on the exam. It is not a quantitative section but you need to know the basic rules and especially the differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts, as well as the advantages/disadvantages of each. Notice that the guideline answers provide four possible answers but the question only asks for two. The grader will only look at your top two answers so lead with the best and do not waste your time writing down more than you need.

Remember, with trusts the idea is a transfer of assets outside of probate that may protect assets from other claims and avoid family disputes.

The material on taxes is extremely long and quantitative but many of the prior essay questions have come down to qualitative ideas of whether taxes can be deferred and whether the future rate will be higher than the current. Part C was one of these types of questions and all the information was laid out in the vignette. In these instances, if the question seems difficult, try reading through the vignette focusing on only one solution (either the gift or the estate) and list out the tax rules that apply. Then you can compare the two side by side.

Part D was tough because you basically knew generation skipping or you didn’t. You probably would have gotten at least one point if you described the benefit without explicitly naming it ‘generation skipping’ so make sure you write out your reasoning on all questions. There are some quantitative sections on the estate and tax topics but it seems that the terms and concepts are the most important and will get you a good amount of the points.

The CFA Level 3 essays last year included three questions on individual portfolio management for a total of 14% of your total exam score. That is a huge chunk and combined with the institutional questions, portfolio management was almost a quarter of your exam score. Make sure you hit those two topics hard and be ready for this year’s exam.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Think you are ready for the CFA Exams? Think again.



With just six weeks to the CFA Exam, you might be feeling pretty confident about your preparation so far and ready to coast through to the June test. You are doing well on question bank problems and are sure you will be able to pass the exam.

Don’t take your focus off of the finish line! This is the time you need to double your efforts and finish strong for several reasons.

Surprised every year

Everyone knows that nearly half of the candidates taking an exam will not pass their level this year yet the statistics are always the same. While the Institue shifts the passing score from year to year, we should see pass rates increase if more candidates were getting at least a 70% or better across all topics. Even after experiencing the exams, candidates continue to underestimate the challenge.

While you may have already put in hundreds of hours in preparation, know that it may take another hundred hours or more to cement your place at the top of the pack. I put in a fairly tough schedule usually from September or October all the way through May each year I was a candidate and was still surprised every year when I went into the exams.

Put in that little extra time and you’ll be rewarded with a huge sigh of relief in June.

Exam, what exam?

One thing I have tried to stress on the blog is the fact that professional development is an enormous part of our industry. Not only is the competition among analyst jobs so fierce but trying to find the best investments in a fairly efficient market among a sea of investors seems impossible at times.

You need every tool at your disposal and the CFA material is the best toolbox around. Try to not think of studying for the exams so much as a one-and-done event but a continuous process in your new career as a true professional.

Obviously, this is tough to do when you are singularly focused on passing your next exam. I understand because I was in the exact same spot just three to five years ago. Keep focused and confident that you will pass the exam but keep the studying in perspective. Don’t stop when you think you are safe to pass the exam. Only stop when you feel you have mastered the material.

Putting it into perspective

While you might feel that the exams are consuming your life right now, putting the time spent in perspective might help a little. That 300+ hours studying for each CFA exam is insignificant over a lifetime.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans 15 years and older spend approximately 7.5 years in front of the television. That’s nearly three hours a day on sit-coms and reality TV.

Surfing the internet takes up nearly as much time with 10,000 hours or about 5 years of our lives. Some of it is time well spent connecting with friends and family or other worthwhile sites but there has got to be a few pointless hours within that total.

Thinking about some of the time wasted throughout the day makes a few hours of professional improvement a little easier. If you spend 300 hours on each exam, that’s just 37.5 days and a little over 11 hours a week over six months. Find that quality time with your family, make sure you get enough time where it counts and then get to work!

Good luck. You’re almost there and I know you can do it.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Making Level I Success a Step to Level II



If you’re a CFA level 1 candidate, your top priority right now is to pass that first hurdle and enjoy a well-earned six months of rest. The last thing you want to think about is putting in your time on the next two exams.

But if I told you that there was something you could do while studying for the CFA level 1 exam that would save you a lot of time next year, would you be interested?

You bet you would!

Remembering a few key points while studying for the first exam could help you pass the level 2 exam and even give you a head start on the third exam as well.

Relationships between the CFA exams

The secret is understanding the related material across the exams and what you need from one exam to the next. While the topic areas across all three exams are all related to an extent, there are a few in which your work on earlier exams is absolutely imperative to passing.

Ethics and Professional Standards is probably the most consistent across all three exams. You will see a couple of new sections in the level 2 and 3, but the core material is exactly the same. The topic area is worth more nearly 12% of your total score across all three exams so definitely points you can’t afford to miss.

Not only is the topic extremely important across the exams, it’s been my experience from candidate comments that it is the one they are most often disappointed by on the first exam. Candidates assume they are ethical people and will be able to pick the correct answer out of the three possibles. They neglect the section and then are surprised at how difficult it is on the exam. Spend a little extra time on this area, do the end of chapter problems and save yourself a ton of time and stress in the next two exams.

Quantitative methods is another topic where mastery of the CFA level 1 curriculum will pay off big time on the second exam. While it is not a high-point section, only 12% of your first exam and 5% – 10% of the second, understanding the material in the CFA level 1 is critical to do the work on the next exam. The level 2 curriculum usually even includes optional refresher material for those candidates that didn’t learn or forgot the prior material. Think of it as the difference between two mathematics courses, one teaching the basics of multiplication and the other moving on to algebra. You would be absolutely lost in the algebra class without mastering the prior course.

Financial Reporting and Analysis is one of two or three core topics to the entire curriculum and worth more than a fifth of your first two exams. The readings on the financials statements in the first exam must be mastered to be able to do the intense analysis work in the second exam. Talk to almost any level 2 candidate and they will tell you that one of the hardest parts of the exam is the FRA material, especially intercorporate investments, multi-national operations and pensions. To be able to understand these readings, you must understand the relationships between the financial statements which is Level 1 material. Save yourself the time of reviewing this by mastering it early.

Study session 14 in the Equity Investments topic area will also be a very important reading for progressing to the level 2 exam. In fact, it looks like a lot of the level 1 material is repeated in the level 2 curriculum. Equity Investments are a quarter of your total score at the second level so you want to be ready for the topic.

The usual disclaimer applies that you cannot afford to completely neglect any topic area. You will need around 70% on your exam to pass to the next level. These exams are extremely difficult on a mental and physical level so do not expect to get all the points in any one section. Spend enough time on the secondary topic areas so you can get at least 60% or more and then focus on the higher-point and higher-importance sections.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Your Most Frequent Questions on the CFA Exams



It’s always around this time that I see an increase in questions from candidates. Six weeks to the exam and everyone is second-guessing their readiness to face that 6-hour marathon. I decided to use this post to review five of the most frequent questions I get and some previous posts to address them. Click through the text to be redirected to specific posts on the topics.

If you’ve been a regular follower of the blog, you might have seen some of the posts before but it might help to refresh on the ideas or suggestions. I’m always open to hearing your recommendations and thoughts so use the comment section below if you think I missed anything.

Five most common questions by candidates

Basic strategies for each of the exams is always a popular subject. The format for each exam varies a little and you need to go into the test knowing what to expect. Besides insight on the format, our basic strategies cover the relative point importance on the topic areas and strategies for studying.

Click on the links below for basic strategy on each exam. The posts were written ahead of the 2012 exam but the formats and strategy have not changed. There are a few changes to the actual curriculum but that won’t change how you approach the tests.

CFA Level 1 Basic Strategy
CFA Level 2 Basic Strategy
CFA Level 3 Basic Strategy

The intense quantity and complexity of formulas is always a sticking point for candidates, especially on the second exam. While the formulas on each exam vary, the way you study for them is consistent. One of the most popular posts on the blog explains the difference between active and passive learning. It may not be as easy as sitting back and reading through the material but actively working through problems and flashcards is the best way to learn the material.

Speaking of flashcards, a recent post on how (and why) to make your own flashcards offers good insight on remembering the formulas. Flashcards were a core resource when I was studying for the exams. They can be carried anywhere and you can use them when you’ve just got a couple of minutes free. Absolutely essential for learning the tough formulas and processes.

No matter what you are doing in life, there never seems to be enough time. Studying for the CFA exams is no different and time management is one of the top questions by candidates. Whether you are a full-time student or have a family and a 9-to-5 job, you’ll need to find ways to effectively use limited time.

Part of this comes from effective time management and moving your schedule around to find blocks of study time but another important idea is using your time responsibly and prioritizing.

The most exam specific question I get is how to approach the level 3 essay section. I loved the morning section when I took the third exam because it is the only group of questions where the Institute actually gives you the questions and answers to previous exams. The morning essays can be extremely easy points if you work through prior exams, or they can be a frustrating mess of lost confidence if you don’t.

We have worked through 14 prior essay questions going all the way back to the 2009 exam. The individual and institutional portfolio questions usually have similar formats across years so be sure to study those and how to approach them. The post linked here is our review of last year’s individual portfolio management question. Click on “Level III” at the top of the blog and scroll through to review the posts on the other essay questions.

Getting a job after earning the designation or even while you are studying is always a top concern for candidates. While I explain in one post that the designation will NOT get you a job by itself, it is an important step in your career as a professional. Instead of relying on the charter to get you a job, follow the advice in another post on how to stand out from the other applicants and get the job you really want.

Have a question about the exams? Send me an email or use the comment section below.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Do Not Let the CFA Level 2 Exam Surprise You



The pass rate for the CFA level 2 exam has only been lower than that of the first exam in three of the last 10 years. For many candidates, that is a welcome relief after a grueling introduction to the exams and it must mean that the second exam is easier. Right?

Wrong! And it catches a lot of candidates off guard.

While the CFA level 2 exam may indeed be easier for a few, most candidates find it incredibly difficult especially compared to the CFA level 1 exam. Which exam is the most difficult for you will obviously depend on your own abilities but you need to go into the second exam knowing exactly what you are facing.

Quantitative Monster

It is often said that the CFA level 1 curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep because it covers a huge range of material but really only teaches to the basic ideas within each. The CFA level 2 material covers the same topics but seems to focus more on the detail within a few. While the range of material can still seem daunting, candidates usually agree that the level two curriculum is a mile deep and maybe a few feet wide (to paraphrase the saying).

This becomes a little clearer looking at the topic weights across the exams. While the first exam is more evenly spread out, the second exam is more focused in a couple of topics. In fact, Financial Reporting & Analysis and Equity Investments alone will account for between 35% to 55% of your entire score.

This is obvious enough to anyone preparing for the exam. What is not so obvious is the quantitative difficulty you will see on the exam. Those problem sets are a monster!

Given that nearly half of the exam could be from just two topic areas, I hope I don’t have to tell you where you should be spending your time. You absolutely must know the FRA and Equity material, especially the formulas.

We covered some of the most important formulas on last year’s exam in three posts (First, Second, Third) and linked here. Almost all will still be applicable to this year’s exam so feel free to look through the posts for hints on each.

There’s two things you can do to help get through the formulas.

  • First, you need to understand what is conceptually happening in the formula. Trying to understand the myriad of symbols is crazy. If  WACC = (Vd/(Vd +Vce))rd (1-t) + (Vce/(Vd+Vce))rce) doesn’t make you go cross-eyed you are a stronger person than I am. Think about it intuitively and it makes sense. The overall cost of a firm’s funding capital is the cost and proportion of equity and debt. The percentage of each funding type relative to the total is multiplied by its cost. Debt is tax advantaged, so you need the after-tax cost.
  • Secondly, you have to work these formulas through practice and repetition. One of the most popular posts here shows that active learning (engaging the material through practice and conversation) allows you to remember much more than passive learning. The best way to approach tough formulas is to put them on flash cards. We covered the importance of flash cards and why you should make your own set in the previous post.

Just because a higher percentage of candidates usually pass the second exam than the first doesn’t necessarily mean it is easier. Think of it this way, candidates are fully aware of the immense challenge presented by the exams after the first test and still less than half typically pass the second exam. That should give you an idea of difficulty on the CFA Level 2 exam.

The good news is that tens of thousands of candidates pass the exam every year and you can too. Focus on those formulas, especially in the high-point topic areas, and you will do well. Less than two months ahead of the CFA exams. Be ready.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Making Flashcards for CFA Success



Every year while I was studying for the CFA exams, I would see candidates at the mock exams and at study groups pulling out their shiny new flashcards. The cards were impressive, detailed with problems and answers and professionally done by prep providers. And every year I saw candidates continue to struggle with the concepts written on their cards because they did not understand them.

One of the best resources for CFA exam preparation is flash cards but not the ones prepared for you. For real exam success, follow the process below to make your own cards.

Your fourth-grade teacher had a secret

Remember getting in trouble in grade school and having to write repetitive sentences on the chalkboard? Ok, maybe many of you don’t but I got in trouble a lot and was perpetually doing math problems and grammar exercises out after class.

Years later, I realized getting in trouble so much actually helped me succeed academically. Writing out about a million math problems over the course of a couple of years virtually guaranteed that I could do those problems from memory years later. Our brains are wired to learn by repetition. Writing something repetitively makes new neural connections and commits information to memory.

And this is why those prepared flash cards will never be as great a resource as writing your own cards. Writing out a problem that covers a Learning Outcome Statement is a long way to memorizing the material.

Making your flashcards is pretty easy but there are a few things to remember. I would try to work through the curriculum once before composing any flash cards. On the second time through, you will have a better sense for the difficult topics and where you need more work. Putting flashcards together on the first read through the curriculum is going to eat up a lot of time on material that you would have gotten without the cards.

Writing your cards, do not simply write out an equation to solve. Cards should be like mini-exam questions with information on a specific scenario. Write out a short story with data that will be needed to solve a problem. You might even try putting in unnecessary information as will be done on the exams. Then on the reverse side of the card, work through the problem completely. Write out every step and every calculation. That will help you learn off your cards instead of constantly referring back to the curriculum if you are confused on how the solution came out.

Don’t think your flash cards are a static learning tool. As you progress, you may want to put some aside that you’ve mastered or make more cards on other topics. After several runs through your cards, you may even try re-writing the ones that are still giving you problems for a little repetitive exercise.

Flash cards cannot be your only resource ahead of the exams but you certainly cannot neglect them. Not only will the cards help you focus on tough material and are a good source of repetitive-type learning, they are a great resource for time management. You can carry your cards with you and run through them anytime you have a couple of free minutes. Those extra few study sessions can add up to a lot of extra time every week.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

CFA Level 3 Review, Behavioral Finance



Behavioral finance is always a tough topic for candidates because the material can be a little confusing and the sheer volume can be overwhelming. The topic really doesn’t have to take a lot of time though and can be some easy points.

Behavioral Finance and the CFA Essays

Behavioral finance is typically tested in the morning essay section of the exam and has been worth an average of 14 points over the last three years. While you need every point you can get, that is just 3.8% of your total exam score. You want to approach the section with the idea of getting the concepts and basic definitions without taking valuable study time from higher point topic areas.

The material is extremely definitional and lends itself really well to flash cards. If you can get the basic definitions of the concepts and vocabulary then you should be able to get the vast majority of the points on the exam. Take a look at the prior years’ exams to get an idea of how the behavioral questions are asked.

Make sure you understand the basic difference whenever a contrast is offered, i.e. the difference between traditional finance and behavioral finance.

The cognitive and emotional biases have shown up on the essays frequently so make sure you have a good understanding of these.

Understand the five belief perseverance biases, consequences and detection:

Conservatism –failure to incorporate new info after a view is established
Confirmation – selectively seeking information that confirms a prior view
Representativeness – tendency to make decisions based on stereotypes or patterns
Illusion of control – belief of ability to influence uncontrollable events
Hindsight – overestimate “ex-post” the accuracy of forecasts

Understand the four processing error biases, consequences and detection:

Anchoring and adjustment – similar to conservatism but is usually tested as an under reaction to new information rather than avoidance of new info or no reaction at all
Mental Accounting – often tested as investors dividing total assets into ‘buckets’ based on categories (i.e. leisure, necessities, emergency)
Framing – tendency to respond differently depending on the situation
Availability – tendency to overestimate the possibility of an outcome based on ease of which the outcome comes to mind (know the four sources of availability bias)

Types of emotional biases:

Loss aversion – includes house money effect and myopic loss aversion, tendency to treat investments differently depending on whether it is a loss or a gain
Overconfidence – tendency to overestimate own ability or knowledge
Self control – preference for present consumption (certainty) versus future (uncertainty)
Status quo – avoidance of change
Endowment bias – emotional attachment to an asset or investment
Regret aversion – avoidance of decision due to fear of regret

The difference between a lot of these biases seem relatively minor and semantic but they often appear in the exam. Besides the basic definition and consequence, understand the slight difference between similar biases so you can distinguish them in a question. This is really where practice on some of the past essays comes in handy, to see how the Institute frames questions.

The material is extensive but you really do not need to memorize every detail. The Finquiz Study Guide has 32 pages of notes on Behavioral Finance for Study Session 3 and can better help to explain the topic. Again, my advice for the topic area is to get the basic idea and concepts and then move on to higher point topics. Even if you only get 60% of the points by just taking a quick look at the section, you’ve only missed 1.5% of the total exam.

I haven’t heard much from Level I or II candidates on which topics they want covered on the blog. Let me know if any particular study session or LOS is giving you problems and we will try to hit it in one of the blog postings.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Your Nine Week Study Plan to Pass the CFA Exams



Just two months are left to study for the 2014 CFA exam and most of you are probably wondering where the time went. Even starting early, an impending sense of dread always came over me about this time of year when I was taking the exams. Whether you have 300 hours or just 30 hours under your belt by now, these last two months are the time you need to focus your time and make sure you’re ready for June 7th.

From Quantity to Quality

Most of us are die-hard numbers people so it easier to put things in quantitative terms. We talk about 300 hours or 70% needed to pass. While this may be convenient, it isn’t necessarily the only way to prepare for the exam.

All the time spent studying won’t help you if you are not comfortable with the material going into the exam. Candidates get so focused on scoring high enough to pass the exams that they forget the reason for the exams in the first place, to master the material. Instead of placing some arbitrary amount of time on study, focus on trying to be able to explain the material in your own words and how it applies to analysis and asset management.

Where your time counts

We’ve talked a lot about core topics to the exams but they are even more important as the exam draws near.  While you can’t afford to neglect any part of the curriculum, there are some topic areas that will make or break your score.

Ethics, Financial Reporting & Analysis, Equity Investments and Fixed Income account for a strong share of the points across all three exams. The four topics may account for between a third and 80% of your exam score. Beyond that, you will need a strong concept of the material in the four topics to be able to understand more detailed material in later exams.

Getting max points in these core topics means a lot of wiggle room across the other six topics.

cfa topic weights

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An important note here is that if you are going to be spending a lot of time on these four topics, you need to do it with different resources. Reading the same thing over and over again is just going to lead to burnout.

Resources for the finish line

When I talk about different resources, I mean ways to study the curriculum whether different media or different sources. These might include the curriculum, condensed study notes, flash cards, question banks, videos or your own personal notes.

  • Using different resources helps avoid burnout by not repeating the exact same material.
  • Using different resources also helps to find the one with which you learn best.
  • Different resources can help provide different perspectives on the material.

Reviewing two study sessions a week

Covering two study sessions a week means you can cover nearly every topic and still have a week left for an intensive review. There are two ways to approach this, you can either cover 16 separate study sessions or you can cover some of the core topics multiple times. It really depends on how comfortable you are with some of the secondary topics and how well you know the core topics.

I always liked alternating study sessions when I did my two per week reviews. Using Ethics and FRA as an example, a week might look something like:

Sunday: Read through condensed notes for the Ethics material and spend an hour on practice problems

Monday: Read through condensed notes for FRA and spend an hour on practice problems

Tuesday: Review each LOS for Ethics, highlighting key concepts and re-reading the sections in which I haven’t quite mastered

Wednesday: Review each LOS for FRA, highlighting key concepts and re-reading the sections in which I haven’t quite mastered

Thursday: Review flash cards for Ethics and spend two hours on practice problems

Friday: Review flash cards for FRA and spend two hours on practice problems

It’s a pretty intense schedule but can be flexible for the number of days and hours you have available. Alternating study sessions helped me avoid burnout trying to cram consecutive days on one topic. Notice I also use different resources through the week so I am getting different perspectives on the material. Practice problems are an extremely effective resource at this point so I tried to include them nearly every day.

Do this up to the last week and then do an intensive review of the curriculum as a review. Plan on giving yourself a day or two to relax before the exam and plan your test day.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

2013 Level 3 Essay Question #1 Review



Passing the Level III CFA exam is all about the essay questions. You know what to expect on the afternoon vignette section and the curriculum is more or less consistently difficult in both the morning and afternoon sessions. The only unknown variable is three hours of application and writing.

Do not underestimate the physical challenge of the morning essays. Who really writes things out by pencil or pen anymore? You need to condition the muscles in your hand to be able to write non-stop.

Fortunately, the CFA Institute is uncharacteristically generous to level III candidates and supplies copies of the actual essay questions and the guideline answers for the last three years’ exams. The single best advice I can offer to level III candidates is download and practice those exams. Work through each exam at least twice.

The exams are available on the Institute’s website here.

We’ve covered a general review of the Private Wealth Management topic area last year and not much has changed in the curriculum. Click here for a review of the topic and how to approach it. You absolutely must know how to work through the two types of return questions and apply the constraints of the IPS. Remember TUTLL!

2013 Level III Exam, Question #1 Individual Wealth Management

Between the first two questions last year, the individual wealth management topic accounted for nearly 10% of your entire exam score (35 points of 360). Besides the technical importance, starting off the day by doing well on the first couple of questions will give you a huge confidence boost and sets you up for success.

Hit this section hard and master it!

Last year’s first question covers the Voorts and their needs in retirement. Some candidates like to read the questions first then the vignette. I always liked reading through the vignette first and underlining important information. Try it both ways in practice to see which you prefer for the exam.

A)    This is a single-period return calculation (as opposed to the other type of question you might see, a multi-period return calculation. Be ready for both). Notice almost every questions says, “Show your calculations.” You can get partial credit if you show your calculations even if your final answer is wrong. Don’t forget!

The guideline answer is a pretty standard format. List out the living expenses with an inflation adjustment and reduce it by any guaranteed income like pension payments. Taxes and inflation are two of the biggest hurdles in these. Make sure you note where you need to incorporate taxes and inflation into the given data.

After you know how much is needed from portfolio assets, you need to list out all investable assets to find the portfolio size. After that it is a fairly easy calculation of cash needs divided by the portfolio value. Note, this will give you a real return requirement (without inflation) so you need to adjust upwards.

B)   Part B is fairly easy. Understand which factors go into ability and which factors affect willingness to assume risk. Remembering this, you can quickly scan the vignette for specific details when you see either word. Notice the guideline answers lists five possible answers but the question ask for only two. Do not waste your time listing every possible answer! The grader will only check the first two.

Typically portfolio size to needed cash is a strong factor in ability. Even if higher risk led to a decrease in portfolio value, they could still probably meet their needs. Age is also a common topic with younger people having the ability to return to work.

C)   The liquidity requirement is basically done in the return calculation above but I guarantee a lot of candidates forgot to include the cash reserve. Liquidity is not necessarily only the money you plan to spend but what you need set aside.

D)   This ‘choose the most appropriate portfolio’ is fairly common and easy points. A few pieces of information are key: goal return, preference for risk and the risk-adjusted return.

Given the goal return of 3.5% means a return of 8.57% on a nominal pre-tax basis ((3.5% +2.5%/(1- 0.7)). Only portfolios X and Z meet this preference.

The Voorts do not want the portfolio to decline by 10%. Only Portfolio Y and Z meet this requirement.

Only portfolio Z meets both reasons.

With a little preparation, that is 20 easy points, nearly 6% of the entire exam in the bag. Be ready for these essay questions and they will be no problem.

We reviewed multiple essay questions from previous years on the blog last year. Click here for the review of Question #1 in the 2011 exam and scroll through for other essay questions.

‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA