Why Employers Like the CFA Designation

One of the most contested questions on the CFA forums is whether the charter, or passing the exams, will help you get a job. Despite my constant grumbling that the experience is worth it simply for professional development, candidates still look to the charter to help gain employment. Imagine it, the nerve! ;)

Rest easy candidates, I can tell you from my own experience (and from the experience of many others) that your hard work is appreciated and will be rewarded. Employers love to see the CFA on your resume.

It’s not just charterholders and the Institute
You would expect other charterholders to talk well of the designation and look to other members as employees. We know full well the kind of hard work and dedication that goes into earning the right to those three little letters. I have seen whole firms that seem to employ exclusively charterholders and it is usually the result of a charterholder at the top making decisions. It doesn’t take long looking through postings for analyst opportunities to see more than a few, “CFA charter or progress required.”

But it is always those outside voices that strike me as the most convincing. Those employers I talk to that have not sought the charter for themselves but recognize the quality represented by someone willing to put in the long-hours and hard work.

One of my first freelance writing projects was for the quarterly advisor newsletter of the Baxter Credit Union. Over the one hour phone conversation, the hiring advisor spent at least 20 minutes talking about the great things he had seen from CFA charterholders. Here I was looking for a job and the interviewer couldn’t stop congratulating me on my accomplishment!

My current employer, a venture capital firm out of Canada, requires that all analysts be charterholders or are candidates for the exams. It was imperative to management, when putting together a team of sell-side analysts, that they find people with a high standard for ethical and professional behavior. Having the charter does not automatically make you an honest person but employers know that, besides their own code and standards, charterholders are bound by the CFA Code and Standards.

And these are only two firms of the many that I’ve talked to and have explicitly favored charterholders or candidates in the hiring process. It’s especially true at small firms and for contract positions. These firms might not have the resources or time to fully train a new analyst. By hiring charterholders, they know that their new employee has a minimum of exposure to a range of topic areas through the curriculum.

A strong tool but not the whole toolbox
Obviously, earning the charter or having passed the exams will not get you the job versus a much more qualified and educated job hunter. Completing the three exams is not the last professional development you’ll need. Look to the Institute for research or seminars. Take an honest look at your resume and improve on those areas where you are lacking.

It also cannot do the networking for you. You still have to be aggressive in your job search. Make calls and go to professional events. Ask for the interview and send your resume.

When they see the hard work you have put into the CFA exams, they will take a second look and that effort will be rewarded.

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

The Passing Score on the CFA Exams and How to Use It

Candidates are heading to the December exam and questions about the passing score will soon follow. While the Institute does not publish the score needed to pass the exams, there are some important lessons to learn from what we do know.

Pass rates and the passing score
When you see your score, it will not be a single point percentage but a range of <50%, 50% to 70% or >70% across each of the topic areas. Not sure exactly why the Institute does this but it doesn’t matter too much, the ranges will serve our purposes here.

The score needed to pass the exam should not be confused with the exam pass rates which are the percentage of test takers that pass their level exam each year. These have been trending down over the last several decades with less than half of the candidates now passing. Everyone has their own theory on why this is happening but the fact is that these are some tough exams and you’ll need to prepare to do well.

So how many points do I need?
Each multiple choice question on the exams is worth three points with 360 points possible. The passing score varies from year to year and is determined after all the exams are graded for a particular level. Since the Institute does not publish an actual passing score, the only thing we do know is that no candidate has ever failed with a score of 70% or higher.

There are two important points that I always tried to remember when taking the exams. First, if I aimed for (and scored) at least 70% on the exams then I would pass the exam. Second, because the actual passing score is adjusted up or down on the distribution of actual scores and approximately 50% of candidates passed the exam, I needed to work harder than the average candidate to come out ahead.

Targeting a score of 70% or higher is something we’ve talked about on the blog. Whether you have a test bank or use end-of-chapter questions (or hopefully both), it’s pretty easy to track your progress and build a confidence interval around your performance. On these practice problems and mock exams, I would aim for something higher than 70% just in case the actual exam questions turned out to be more difficult.

Working harder than the average candidate is not as easily quantifiable. It isn’t that you are competing against other candidates, but you do need to understand that the charter isn’t for the ‘average’ finance professional, it is for those willing to go that extra mile for their career and their clients. While there are not a lot of ‘average’ candidate stats to go on, we know that 300 hours is an average for time spent studying. I would say that the average candidate also waits to start studying until late January, at the earliest.

Pass or fail, your score is more important than you know
The CFA exams are extremely tough and it’s understandable that candidates would want to know exactly what they need to do to pass but your score is more important than just passing the exam.

If the passing score is under 70%, that means candidates can miss almost a third of the information and still be on their way to being charterholders. No one is expecting you to remember 100% but working in the industry carries a great deal of responsibility. Think about it for a second and ask yourself if you would want someone planning your financial future that scored less than two-thirds on their professional exams.

For many candidates, seeing the result of their CFA exam is a sobering experience. Knowing that you scored less than 50% in a topic area should be a wake-up call and guide your studies in the future. I won’t say that I have used the entire curriculum since earning my charter but I have used a great deal of it and am glad for the time I put in to learn it.

I know that passing the exams is the first and last thing on your minds right now, just getting this three-year study-fest over with so you can reap the rewards, but try to remember why you are taking the exams in the first place. The CFA curriculum will make you a stronger professional and will help you for decades after you’ve passed the exams. While a passing score is important, reach higher and be better for it.

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

Will Claritas Help Me Get A Job? It Did For One Candidate.

I interviewed Robert Tolstykh a couple of months ago about his decision to study for the Claritas Investment Certificate and his longer-term goals. I am happy to say that I’ve talked to Robert recently and he has passed the exam. Even better, he has landed a job as a client service associate at an advisor shop.

While we cannot know if he would have gotten the job without the Claritas Investment Certificate, I would bet that it didn’t hurt his chances. I talked to Robert over email to get his take on the certificate and any advice for future candidates.

What sections do you think were the hardest? Why?
The fifth module was the most difficult for me. Specifically investment vehicles and structures and investment market characteristics, the reason is because it seemed that they were pretty comprehensive and included many details about the specificities of the subjects that were mentioned. The entire fifth module felt that way.

What sections did you find easiest?
The easiest section was the seventh module, including investor’s needs and investment policy, and active and passive management. These chapters seemed concise and to the point where it was easy to get a grasp on the subject at hand and relate to it.

Were there any sections on the exam that surprised you as easier or harder?
Investment instruments (module 4) surprised me as not being too difficult, because I imagined that it would be more confusing and harder to undertake than it really was.

What would you do differently in your studying?
I would not read every chapter twice. I think that is not necessary and it takes up too much time in the beginning and you may not have enough time or as much as you would like in the end.

About how long (total hours) would you say you spent studying?
I spent 100+ hours of studying for the entire exam

Could you describe your new job and how the information from the Claritas program is useful?
My new job is exactly what I was studying for; this is why I was able to leverage this program along with my passion into a new career change and job. My job deals with client services in a wealth management firm and the things I learned from the Claritas program. I see the material on a regular basis and read about them and practice them as well.

Anything other insight or advice for other candidates?
I would say if you would like to get an entry level welcoming into the investment world, then the Claritas is a great choice. It gives you the fundamentals of the industry. And as long as you have a passion and keen interest in finding your place in this field of work, then it can ignite more interests and keep you going for higher education.

Thanks for the response Robert. If that isn’t enough to motivate other Claritas candidates, I don’t know what will.

Good luck on your new job,
Joseph Hogue, CFA

4 Reasons You May be Too Late for the June Exam

November is almost over and you haven’t started studying for the 2014 CFA exam yet? I know it seems way too early and every year I bark up the same tree that candidates need to start studying earlier. Every year the majority put it off until later…then much later. Some are still successful, others not so much.

I’m not just trying to fill space and there really are some strong reasons for starting early.

300 hours is a lot easier in 28 weeks than in 17
If the average time spent studying to pass the test is 300 hours, then what does your Level I statistics tell you? Sure you might get away with a couple of hundred hours studying but do you want to take the chance? You can spend 150 hours and probably have to spend another 300 for the same exam next year or just spend the necessary amount this year.

I don’t know what your schedule is like but mine was busy when I took the exams. It is hard enough fitting in 10 hours of studying a week, let alone15 hours or more.

Stress, stress and stress
If you haven’t been on the forum long then you haven’t seen what happens around March or April before the exam. Candidates start FREAKING OUT! There will be no less than ten forum posts asking if it is too late to begin studying [in April] and asking desperately what to do. Even the candidates that start with what they think is enough time in February still feel the stress of the first Saturday in June.

Now imagine the sigh of relief you’ll have seeing those forum posts and knowing that you are prepared. Having started no later than November for all three exams, I was able to go through the curriculum, study guides, flash cards and a mountain of practice problems. Yeah, I was still worried but I knew I would pass the exams.

So you’ve outlined your study plan and will have plenty of time to start in late February. Fifteen weeks of 15 hours a week and you’ll take a week off work for an intensive review. No problem.

If you are clairvoyant enough to know that it will work out exactly that way, then call me and we’ll go to Las Vegas. Life is what happens when our plans don’t come out exactly. What happens when your boss won’t give you the time off work? What happens when you get put in charge of that dream account that will lead to a promotion but will mean long hours? What happens when your kid’s team makes the state finals and you are traveling for two weeks?

What happens when life gets in the way and you come up short studying? Better luck next year.

It’s your profession, learn it
The most simple and best reason – because the curriculum will make you a better analyst. If you do not want to be a better analyst or money manager then you need to find another profession. This industry is incredibly competitive and only those that make the time to get those extra few basis points of alpha will survive.

Don’t think of it as studying for a test, where all you have to do is memorize enough material to pick the best of three choices. This is the easiest professional development you will do in your career. Everything is laid out and organized in a few texts complete with practice problems. Enjoy it, enjoy your career.

You’ll get other advice from charterholders that say they studied for just a couple of months and had no problems. It may be true or they may just be remembering things how they want you to see them. Ultimately, it’s your choice when you want to begin studying but I hope the reasons above are enough to convince you to start sooner rather than later.

Be the tortoise, not the hare.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Your December Level I Checklist

Just four weeks left to the big day for December candidates and I am remembering my own Level I exam with fondness. I took the exam in June 2009 and did fairly well but there were still a few things I wish I had taken care of before the test. Most of these scattered within older posts on the blog but I thought I would compile them here so you don’t have to search.

Do at least 900 practice problems
I can’t think of a better way to prepare for the exam than by doing exam-type questions. From my own experience, along with talking to candidates, 900 practice problems seem to be a pretty good target for understanding the curriculum. Do at least 360 of these in 180-question blocks to simulate a full exam. Make sure you are tracking your performance within the topic areas as well as across the curriculum.

Don’t let the Ethics material surprise you
Ok, this is more of a goal than a checklist item but it is more important than you know. Everyone thinks they know ethics until they take the test. The Institute is legendary for writing questions and answer choices that have you second-guessing yourself. The material is worth 15% of your score and a big part of the other exams so you need to master the topic. The end-of-chapter questions are a good example of how the exam questions will go. If possible, I would recommend getting other year’s texts and doing the questions in those as well (ask other candidates or your local society who might have the books).

Studying financial reporting will pay off now and in future
This section and the one on Ethics account for more than a third (35%) of your total score and a big chunk of the other two exams. As a financial analyst, does it surprise you that the topic of Financial Statement Analysis would be a big part of the test? More than just passing the Level I exam, you need to master this basic material to be able to handle the Level II and III material.

Think breadth not depth
Candidates rightly say that the Level I exam is a mile wide and an inch deep while the Level II exam is an inch wide and a mile deep. The exam surprised me for its breadth of material but was actually fairly easing on detail. You really need to master the two sections above, but I would focus on quantity rather than quality for the rest of the curriculum. Make absolutely sure you have a good understanding of all the definitions and the larger concepts.

Note that this changes in Level II where I feel the focus is on a detailed understanding of less breadth.

Check those docs and your test route
How much would it suck to do all that studying and then not be able to take the exam? Nobody believes they will have a problem on test-day but there are always candidates at every site that arrive late or do not have the correct documents. I put together a test-day checklist in a previous post and found here, that includes Institute policies and suggestions for that all important day.


Not a complete to-do list but I think it will get you 80% of the way. Please let us know your own list in the comments below so we can pass them along.

‘til next time, good luck in December.
Joseph Hogue, CFA

Claritas Curriculum Review: Chapter 6 Microeconomics

If you didn’t fall asleep studying quantitative methods in chapter five, microeconomics might just do the trick. I will be the first to admit that the material can be dry at best, and I’m an economist!

As part of module 3, worth 20% of your score, you can’t afford to neglect the material. Thinking of each concept in real-world terms, i.e. how does General Motors decide how many cars to make, can help to make the material more interesting.

The broad definition of economics and the difference between micro- and macro-economics are important here. Economics is just how people use limited resources. Macro-economics is the national and international-level details so data like inflation, unemployment and GDP. Micro-economic, think micro = small, is the individual level for people and businesses. This is going to be data like selling prices, production costs and revenue.

The curriculum seems to cover a lot of material but it looks like basic overview stuff and you should probably just focus on the main points within each section. Much of the chapter lends itself well to flash cards for definitions.

Supply and Demand
The respective curves are important and you should remember how each is affected by different changes. Important is the difference between a shift in the curve or movement along the curve. Changes in income, substitute prices, preferences, etc will cause a shift in the demand curve while a change in price will only affect movement on the curve. Similarly; input prices, technology, taxes, etc will cause shifts in the supply curve while only a change in the product price will cause movement along the curve.

Flash cards will help you understand the basic idea for each variable that affects the curves (i.e. technology, taxes, preferences, etc).

The equilibrium quantity and price is just where the two curves meet and people will be willing (and able) to buy a certain amount for a certain price. Be able to tell on a supply-demand chart if there is a surplus/excess supply or a shortage/excess demand.

Elasticities of Demand
This one could be tricky for some so first focus on the idea then try to get the basic formula. Elasticity of demand just says that people will buy less of a product if the price increases (duh!). The formula helps to quantify it by comparing the percentage change in demand against the percentage change in price, up or down.

Edemand = % change quantity / % change in price

Understand the difference between elastic and inelastic demand. Elastic demand is noted by a larger decrease in demand when price increases. Think luxury cars and jewelry, not necessarily needed things so when the price goes up, people buy fewer. In contrast to inelastic demand where demand does not change as much with price changes, think milk.

Profits and Costs of Production
All the cost curves are a pain so getting the ideas first will help make the graphs commonsense. Fixed costs are those that do not depend on quantity produced so things like rent, insurance, and equipment. Variable costs rise and fall with production, items like raw materials. The average fixed and variable costs are just divided by the number of products produced.

Since fixed costs do not change and variable costs increase at high rates of production, average total costs decrease at first but then rise later (a u-shaped curve).

Some other definitional terms are important as well like: operating leverage, marginal cost and marginal revenue.

This is a fairly short section and the prior sections really cover the material. Understand the key factors that affect pricing: supply, demand, elasticity of demand and industry structure.

Industry Structure
Understand that Perfect Competition, Monopolistic Competition, Oligopoly, and Pure Monopoly lie on a scale with the key differences in number of firms, barriers to entry and exit, competition between firms, and profits.

In perfect competition, there is high competition and low barriers to entry/exit. This results in firms taking the price that buyers are willing to pay and profits equal to opportunity costs in the long-run.

In pure monopoly, there is just one seller and high barriers to entry so the firm sets the price in the market (profits are high due to pricing power).

In an oligopoly, there are a few sellers and barriers to entry/exit are high. As the next structure from monopoly, there will be a lot of similarities with the key differences being number of firms and limited increased competition.

We’ll cover chapter 7, macro-economics in the next review. The jury is out whether macro-economics is more or less interesting than micro-economics. I enjoy it more because it is broader concepts that seem to matter more on the big picture but many prefer micro- for its relevance to actual company operations. Remember, getting the basic ideas within each section will make it easier to grasp the details and thinking of the material in practical terms might make it more interesting.

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


The Do’s and Don’ts of using your CFA Charter

Before you tune out saying, “I already know what the Code and Standards say about using my charter,” this is not about how you should technically use the designation.

This post is all about getting the most out of your charter. You worked hard for it. Those 900 plus hours and three years should get you something, right?

1)     Do use the charter! I see a lot of people on the internet and have talked with people at conferences who you would never know they were a charterholder. Now I am not saying you monogram all your shirts with CFA, but it should go on your professional nameplates (i.e. business cards, professional social media profiles, nametags at conferences). Presumably you wanted something more from the designation than just the knowledge you got from the curriculum. It’s going to be hard to reap those benefits unless you let people know.

2)     Don’t be a CFA-ist. I’ve seen this before and came close to doing it myself. You are talking with a group at a conference or professional event and the conversation comes around to designations and qualifications. Naturally you want to talk up the grueling study needed to pass the CFA exams, so you gush about how it is so much harder than other designations and it is the only real investment-related qualification. That’s when you find out that several people in the group have other designations (i.e. CFP, CPA, etc). Then you find out they know a lot more than you and have more distinguished careers.

There is some overlap in the markets for the designations but mostly they serve different purposes. Feel free to talk up the charter but understand that the measure of a designation’s worth is what you do with it, not by just having it.

3)     Do take advantage of ALL the benefits. When is the last time you went to a local CFA society event? When was the last time you logged into the Institute’s website and looked around, maybe looking at some of the published research? Clawing your way through the exams and paying your membership dues (yes, along with signing your annual ethics statement) provides you with a range of benefits well beyond just using those three little letters after your name. The charter puts you in a network of some of the best and brightest in the field.

I’m not saying that Bill Gross, CFA is going to start taking your calls but reach out to other charterholders in your network. The research published and available on the Institute’s website, combined with the insight from others all around the world, will make you a rockstar in your sector.

4)     Don’t forget the connections you made as a candidate. A lot of candidate groups form some great bonds while helping each other through the three-year war that is the CFA exams, then they go their separate ways into different sectors. Keep those friendships alive and help each other out.

There cannot be just four do’s and don’ts for using the CFA designation! What are your own musts for after you earn the charter? Any mistakes you’ve already made?

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

The Great CFA Problem Set Challenge

Each year, thousands of candidates take the CFA exams and I get a lot of emails from those with good outcomes and those with outcomes that were not so great. One thing always seems to separate the passing candidates from those in one of the fail bands, practice problems.

Now it felt like I did a million practice problems and problem sets every year that I took the exam but the average I get from most passing candidates seems to be around 900 problems. Yes, of the candidates that tell me they passed, the average number of practice problems completed is around 900. Of those in the fail bands, it seems the average is just under 500 problems.

Not a formal study and probably some biases in the data (you tell me which ones), but there is definitely a difference. It doesn’t take any leap of imagination to figure it out. Practice makes perfect, right? 900 practice problems is about five full exams worth of problems. If you can do this many practice problems, learning from your mistakes, then you should have picked up enough to get more than two-thirds on the actual exam. Of course, learning from your mistakes is important. Sitting there getting 30% on each round of practice problems without reviewing the answers isn’t going to help anyone, but that’s another topic.

Your challenge for the next exam!
My challenge to you is this, for the next exam, do 1,440 practice problems. That’s about 8 full-length tests and more than 1.5 times the average number reported to me by successful candidates. It may seem like a lot but its still less than half the number of practice problems in the Finquiz Web-based Test Banks. For the first four, do not worry too much about your score. Do the practice problems and review any incorrect answers. Make sure you review the questions that you guessed correctly as well because you may not be as lucky the next time around.

After your first four exams, start keeping track of your overall score and your percentage score within each topic area. Plan out your study schedule so you finish the last set of practice problems approximately two weeks before the exam.

If you finish the last problems with an average score of at least 75% over the last 360 questions (2 full exams), then you can relax and just do some maintenance studying up to the exam. I hesitate to talk about an alternative because if you have finished more than 1,400 problems and are not scoring very well then a few more hundred problems are probably not going to help.

You will want to check your average scores in the individual topic areas. If you are scoring less than 60% in any one area then you’ll need to work on it regardless of your overall score, but after 1,440 practice problems I have gotta believe that you are going to be golden for the exam.

I can’t give you any guarantees but if I wanted just one way to assure myself that I would pass the exam, it would be the 1,440 challenge. For you December testers, that’s about 40 problems a day with a week left to the exam. For June testers, you could start in February and do just 96 problems a week.

You will need to do the readings or at least read the study guides to be able to work the practice problems but achieving your 1,440 should be the goal.

That’s it. Seems easier when you can focus on just one goal rather than trying to elaborate on a lengthy and intricate study plan. Work those practice problems, meet your goal and you will not be disappointed!

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

How to Get a Job in Finance, with or without a CFA

Given the number of emails I’ve gotten from discouraged graduates, I think it’s a good time to revisit the question of getting a job in finance.

The usual question is more like, “will the CFA charter get me a job?” Of course the answer is NO, it will not GET you a job. Having the charter or working towards completion will help but you will still need to work for that offer letter.

Sad but true, you have to work just to get a job to go to work. Fortunately, no job is without a standard operating procedure.

Decide what you really want
This is a big one and probably the most neglected among job hunters. So you want a job in finance? Great, what part of finance, what role? You need to figure out what specifically you want to do. You are going to need to do a lot of footwork and cannot do it for every role and every company.

Do your homework
Now that you have an idea of what you want to do, you can start to focus. The internet is a good tool but talking to people will pay unexpected dividends. Every time you talk to someone about what you want and what you can bring to an employer, you will make connections. Those people will remember you the next time they hear about an opening.

Talk to someone from the local chamber of commerce, your local CFA society or another business organization about the local companies in the industry. Phone calls are ok but in-person is 100 times better. Make the time to make it personal.

Once you have a good list of companies, go to the website to look for open positions. Even if something is available, your work isn’t over just by filling out an application. Your next assignment is finding out about the company and the specific department where you want to work. What is the company’s market? Are you a key demographic or can provide insight into that market? Has the company tried expanding into any other industry or vertically? What can you bring to the table?

Who do you know that knows someone that works in the department? If everyone on earth is connected to Kevin Bacon by just six degrees of separation, then surely you have a connection to someone in the department. Do people that work in the department have a certain background? Do they usually come from accounting, do they come from other firms in the same role, are they generally fresh out of college? How are you alike and dissimilar? What can you bring to the table?

Stand out from the competition
There could be upwards of 100 applicants for the position, 10 initial interviews and 3-5 second interviews. How do you stand out from the rest? Your prior work, making those connections and researching the company will pay off but you still need to work on it.

By now, you should have a good idea of what you want to do and what people in the department are doing on a daily basis. You need to show HR and management that you can do that. Do they make a lot of presentations (i.e. sell side)? Then you better have a presentation ready. Sure, they may not have a computer set up for powerpoint during the interview but they will appreciate that you took the time and can look at the printed slides as you talk through it.

They say dress for the job you want. What about doing the job you want? Want to be an equity analyst? Work through a financial model and put together a full equity report to take to the interview. First, it will show that you are motivated and willing to work to get the job. Second, it is going to help you understand the job better and the Q&A will go much more smoothly.

It isn’t an entirely easy process but starting in a position higher than mailroom clerk will be your reward. Stick with it and be prepared for a lot of rejection and non-responses. If nothing else, while you wait you’ll have plenty of time to study for the CFA.

‘til next time, happy job hunting.
Joseph Hogue, CFA