Great Advice from a MBA/CFA Third year/level student at Concordia University’s Goodman Institute of Investment Management.
By Luis Fernando Arce, Chief Interviewer
An Interview about the CFA exam and some of the future possibilities it creates. Looking into the structure of the MBA/CFA program and how one can prepare for it. Finally, he provided some advice for
Can I get your name and level of study, please?
My name is Anthony Vaccaro. I’m a level 3 CFA candidate.
How many years is the program?
Which exam did you just write?
I just wrote the level three exam.
So tell me a little bit about the exam. Can you describe the difference between each level?
Well it covers a broad scope…But I would say that level one is kind of just getting into the concepts, looking at where the financial world is right now. Level two goes deeper into those concepts; into every aspect: fixed incomes, derivatives, equities, corporal finance, accounting – pretty much anything in the financial world because, as big as it is, it just keeps growing, getting more complex and more vast every year. So level one and level two are just actually looking at the mechanics of some of the tools and theories that are being used. And level three takes more….imagining yourself as a portfolio manager and kind of tying in everything that you`ve looked at over the last couple of years, and how you would actually apply the stuff and manage a portfolio that would include currencies, equities, all those things. And it also takes into account the psychology of your clients, of your investors. And of course ethics is something that runs through all three levels as well.
the biggest advantage is scientific proof of your work ethic.
Yeah, actually I’m a little surprised that I was recommended, because…I’m a bit of a unique situation….Basically, I went into the MBA program already having completed level one. So in the MBA they were covering CFA level one, but I had already passed it, so I wrote level two. In my second year – for this year – I was studying for level three, but the program was preparing people for level two. Now that said, it’s still an excellent idea, absolutely. And if you can condense it into three years – not everyone gets it – but if you manage to come out of an MBA and a CFA, you’ve done in three years what it normally takes people six or seven years to do.
Just for a CFA by itself?
No for CFA and MBA. CFA is three tests, but it’s rare for people to pass each test on the first attempt – it does happen, but it’s rare. If I had to guess, I’d say that on average it probably takes people five or so years to get all three levels of the CFA. And then the MBA, depending on the program, generally is three years.
What was your story like? Did you pass on the first try?
The very first CFA level I wrote twice, and then I passed level two on the first try and we’ll find out about level three.
What prerequisites do you need before writing level one?
It may have changed a little bit, but when I wrote the level one in 2008 you needed an undergraduate degree. Myself, I had no financial background at all – I had a degree in philosophy and journalism and I got accepted. Obviously it’s a lot harder to pass on the first attempt because I had no idea what any of these concepts meant at all. If somebody has a B-Com, they will obviously be in a much better position.
So what made you go for it, having had such a detached academic background?
I’m a financial journalist – so I cover the mining industry and interview and talk to a lot of analysts on the street. I just got tired of asking the questions and them always being the experts, so I thought there’s no reason why I couldn’t be in their position.
So how did you prepare for it? Did you take any financial or economics courses?
Nope. I just studied my butt off. I got some math textbooks, because I hadn’t seen any math since high school. I ust got friends to help me with algebra stuff and just got through the rest on my own. I did use the Stalla and Schweser study guides as a main study help. And the rest…I just basically buried myself for six months – didn’t see many of my friends, just went home and studied after work.
That’s nuts, man. I’m cringing just thinking of all that math work. I hated it and I would not have gone back to it, especially since my field isn’t related at all.
Yeah…life has many twists and turns. I thought the same thing in my 20’s, and then in my mid 30’s I ended up going back and doing it. I actually find it interesting now and enjoy it, but I didn’t before; it was definitely not my strong suit in high school.
Now that you are becoming the expert, what are you planning on doing with it?
Ideally I’d like to be an analyst – a buy-side analyst. So you are coming up with ideas for hedge or mutual funds on which stock they should be purchasing. I take a global, macro kind of perspective. So I kind of predict where things are going overall in the global economy and where you need to be to stay ahead of the game.
People don’t realize just how much work it is.
No. I think a general kind of thing guided me. I was interested in global economics, political and social issues. And in the financial world, being as broad as it is – a subset is you can specialize in that aspect, without gravitating towards it. So I didn’t specifically know that, but I generally knew that – it’s what I’d always been interested in.
What kind of edge are you expecting this certificate to give you in terms of financial security, jobs, salary, whatever?
This is a bit early [to tell] because…in Toronto, there are a lot of CFAs. It’s a very hard definition to get and I think in other cities – there can be a student in our class from Pakistan – I believe someone said it’s something like 20 or 30 CFAs in all of Pakistan. In Toronto that’s a little bit different. There’s a lot more. But the most important thing, I think, is it shows potential employers just how hard you are willing to work. People can say “I’m a very hard worker” – if you have your CFA, you do not have to say you are a hard worker – you’ve proven it. There’s no possible way you can do it without doing a crazy amount of work. So the biggest advantage is scientific proof of your work ethic.
What do you think makes the program so successful? Because it’s doubled the CFA pass rates since 9 years ago?
Yeah. I think it’s the pace at which they go over everything, and do it very, very thoroughly. Generally what happens – I’ve known a few people that have done it on their own – and you kind of climb through everything between a four and six month period. So maybe you’re learning…on the surface but you’re not really learning them. Whereas at the Goodman Institute, you’re going over them at the starting of September for an 8 month period or so; you have professional, well informed professors that you can bounce ideas off of – that can actually make sure you understand the concepts. I remember when I was studying on my own: you just wanted to memorize the formula, rather than trying to apply it. And that becomes harder to do when you try to do it without understanding the concept behind the formula. So having a professor there actually helps you learn the concepts – gives you someone to talk to and help you get your ahead around it. It’s much easier when you actually understand the concept behind what he is doing as opposed to just memorizing what [metrics] are.
What about when you do it independently, there’s no instructor, or professor or no one that can guide you with it?
Nope. You’re all on your own. You can download videos and stuff like that, so you can watch these ‘gurus’ speak, but you cannot interact with them.
Is it a lot more expensive to take it through the MBA program?
Yup. Probably 16 times more expensive. 16,000 I’m paying – I believe it’s up to 18,000 per year now. And that’s a GNFB. Now listen, compared with most other MBA programs, that’s a good deal (I believe Rotman’s is 45,000 a year or something like that)…Now relative to other preparation programs for the CFA which are not MBAs, then it’s expensive. A prep program is usually just a couple thousand bucks.
So would you definitely recommend the program?
If you can afford it, yes. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. If you can’t afford it, then no – it’s not worth ruining your financial life over, because you can do it on your own – if you are a very dedicated person. But if you have the money, then yeah. You will get a more thorough understanding of the material and when you’re done you will also have an MBA. And another important factor is that not everyone gets the CFA. I know some people in our program that were unable to get the CFA, but after three years they still had the MBA. The only requirement is that you have to pass the first level of the CFA; if you are unable to pass level two or three and you complete the MBA program, you will still get the MBA.
The classes that you take for the CFA – are those literally integrated into the same MBA classes, or are they completely different courses, independent of the MBA classes?
For the most part. I’d say there is probably 80% – 90% integration; there are some courses that are just MBA courses: behavioural finance, for instance. And then there’s a couple of the CFA ones that aren’t specifically covered as well, some of the smaller ones.
Is there a specific reason for them not being covered?
I think it’s just they are small….don’t quote me directly on this….In level one and level two, there’s a section of quants – which is basically just applied mathematics. So when you’re doing the MBA, in the first year they teach you both level one and level two quants, but then by year two they’ll be teaching you the quants for the level two exam.
Would you recommend it to someone that, like you, comes from a very different academic background?
Yes, of course. I’d recommend it because…it gives you professors to bounce ideas off of, and makes sure you have a say in the concepts. And it poses a kind of rigour in your studies – when you’re left to your own devices, it’s easier to fall behind, to become complacent, to slack a little bit. In an MBA course, when you have to write an exam almost every two weeks, the marks matter, because you want the MBA, so it forces you to develop really good habits. By the time the CFA exam comes along, you have a really big advantage over others not doing the same.
Anything else you’d like to contribute or suggest for our readers?
I’d say to people that want to get into it, should be aware of two things: some people think it’s impossible and can’t do it and won’t even try. That is not true. I mean I’m no genius by any stretch, so most people are definitely smart enough to do it; but the other side of it is, people don’t realize just how much work it is. So a lot of people will enrol thinking “I can do this” until they get the books, look at it, and not even try. So all of that is just to say that I encourage people to do it, but to realize what they are getting into – it’s a huge commitment. If you have a full time job like I do, then you are basically working every single night, after work and on weekends. With that said, with great commitment comes great rewards both financially and in terms of personal satisfaction.
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