Whether you're new to the financial services business or an experienced veteran, earning one of the many professional designations now available will provide you with a lot of benefits. Increased marketing exposure, credibility and compensation are just some of the advantages offered to those willing to fulfill the rigorous requirements for certification.
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However, the proliferation of designations, particularly in the financial planning field, has complicated the process for those trying to decide which designation will benefit them the most. Over the last several years, a host of new designations have sprung up that offers advisors specialized training in various niches of practice. However, many of these newer credentials require far less academic coursework and training than what is demanded by the older, more established designations. In this article, we'll go over some of the more respected designations and what they entail.
New Kids on the Block
The increase in new designations has sparked debate in the financial services industry regarding the credibility of certain designations compared to others. While there is no black-and-white line of separation between them, a general distinction can be made between the "old school" designations that have been around for decades and the newer ones that continue to crop up. The designations that are most respected and recognized by the financial industry and the media include:
- Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
This is perhaps the most widely recognized credential in the financial planning industry. The media has promoted this designation over most others for years, primarily because of its unbiased approach to teaching the financial planning process, and the rigorous certification requirements that are administered by the CFP board. The academic requirement consists of five courses covering insurance, estate, retirement, education, tax and investment planning plus ethics and the financial planning process. Once the academic requirement is complete, students must sit for the board exam. This is a 10-hour, 285-question test that spans two days and includes two comprehensive case studies. Once a passing grade has been achieved, prospective certificants must also complete at least three years of professional experience and get a bachelor's degree in order to obtain the CFP designation. (To learn more, read Is A Career In Financial Planning In Your Future and Studying For The CFP Exam.)
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
The CPA is by far the oldest and most established financial credential in America. CPA requirements vary by state, but generally you will require 150 semester hours of undergraduate level courses plus a bachelor's degree or higher in order to sit for the 19-hour, two-day exam. There could be other requirements such as a minimum number of credits in accounting and business, or even business law. Check with your state's board of accountancy for the most up-to-date requirements. This comprehensive exam covers accounting, auditing, bookkeeping, taxes and ethics, among other topics. The CPA designation has long been widely recognized by the public as the definitive credential of tax expertise.
- Enrolled Agent (EA)
This is a lesser tax designation often obtained by those who focus on preparing income or estate tax returns. The special agent exam administered by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is broken down into four three-hour sessions spanning two days. The test covers personal, estate and corporate taxes, as well as ethics and IRS regulations, but does not include straight accounting, auditing or bookkeeping of any kind. It could, perhaps, be said that the Enrolled Agent designation allows tax preparers to roughly equate themselves to CPAs within the specific confines of tax preparation.
- Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)
Both of these designations were originally created by the life insurance industry. The CLU designation requires the same five core courses as the CFP designation, plus three additional elective courses. The ChFC designation has the same requirements, except that it tends to embrace general financial planning issues as opposed to the CLU, which focuses more closely on life insurance and its laws and regulations. There is no comprehensive board exam required for either credential.
- Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBC)
As the name implies, this designation is designed specifically for those who sell or administrate employee benefit plans. The curriculum for this designation consists solely of eight courses covering various business, insurance, retirement, pension and regulatory topics. No comprehensive board exam is required. Like the CLU or ChFC, much of the material in this coursework is also covered in the CFP curriculum.
- Registered Health Underwriter (RHU) and Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU)
These designations denote a mastery of each of their respective lines of insurance. Each designation requires the completion of several courses of intensive academic study, but as with the CLU, ChFC and CEBC there is no board exam. Generally, these designations are only earned by those who intend to spend the duration of their careers focusing on health or property-casualty insurance.
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
This designation is generally considered to be one of the most difficult and prestigious credentials in the financial industry, at least in terms of investment management. The academic requirements for this designation are second only to those for CPAs. Three years of coursework must be completed that covers a range of topics and disciplines such as technical and fundamental analysis, financial accounting and portfolio theory and analysis. Those who earn this designation often become portfolio managers or analysts for various types of financial institutions. Holders of these credentials, like CPAs, tend to be compensated chiefly by salary with performance-based incentives (if they take corporate jobs), or from business revenue, for those who start their own private investment management companies. (To learn more, read What Does "CFA" Mean? and Preparing For A Career As A Portfolio Manager.)
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
While these designations have long since been accepted as part of the financial services establishment, the new wave of credentials that has since arisen has served to cloud the validity of some of these older certifications. However, closer analysis of many of these designations quickly reveals that they only require a small fraction of the coursework that is demanded from the traditional sources of accreditation. For example, the Accredited Asset Management Specialist (AAMS) and Chartered Mutual Fund Counselor (CMFC) designations can certainly aid advisors in the investment selection and management process (and will also likely sound impressive to clients and prospects). However, the academic curriculum required for either certification barely scratches the surface of the material covered by either the CFA or even the CFP curricula. But, while the coursework required to obtain most other designations does not compare to that of the CFA, a notable exception has arisen in recent years.
The Licensed International Financial Analyst (LIFA) credential covers much of the same material as the CFA curriculum in its coursework, but is considerably more flexible in terms of administration. Unlike the CFA exams, which are administered at set times in specific, approved locations, LIFA students can go to any Thomson-Prometric testing site and sit for their exams, which can be administered at least 260 days out of the year. LIFA exams are also less expensive, and students may also petition to bypass the first two levels of the exam and sit directly for level III. It remains to be seen how this designation will be compared to the traditional CFA certification.
Indeed, some designations that have recently been created function chiefly as "marketing" designations (i.e. credentials that are geared toward advising senior citizens.). These certifications often focus more on training advisors how to effectively market certain kinds of financial products and services to senior citizens. Therefore, a substantial portion of the training is geared primarily towards exploring the mindset of the average senior citizen, and how that can be used to induce them to follow the newly credentialed advisor's recommendations.
Certainly not all financial professionals who earn designations with less stringent requirements are dishonest or incompetent; merely that many of them have not received the same level of training and experience as others who have earned one or more of the older designations. But, even the lesser designations can help advisors to better assist their clients, if only in specific areas. In terms of marketing, however, the uneducated public will have difficulty discerning between the services that a Certified Senior Advisor and a Certified Financial Planner are able to provide for them. This, of course, has fostered some resentment from advisors who have earned the more difficult certifications. Many of them are seeking legislation that would either curtail the influx of new designations or clearly label them as being lesser in scope. Time and legislation will ultimately determine how this issue gets resolved. (For more insight, see The Alphabet Soup Of Financial Certifications.)