An Introduction to the CFA Designation

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation is regarded by most to be the key certification for investment professionals, especially in the areas of research and portfolio management. It is, however, just one of many designations used today. This can cause some confusion, as investors and professionals alike puzzle out what each designation means and which is best.

This article will take an in-depth look at the CFA designation. If you are a professional considering the CFA, we provide the information that you need to begin weighing the costs and benefits of this decision.

Key Takeaways

  • The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation is given to investment professionals who have successfully completed the requirements set by the CFA Institute.
  • Professionals with the designation stand out to employers and may receive higher salaries than those without it.
  • Candidates are required to pass three levels of exams to become charterholders.
  • CFA charterholders often work at institutional investment firms, broker-dealers, insurance companies, pension funds, banks, and universities.

What Is the CFA Designation?

The CFA designation is given to investment professionals who have successfully completed the requirements set by the globally recognized CFA Institute, formerly the Association for Investment Management and Research (AIMR). To be eligible for the CFA designation, candidates must:

  1. Pass three rigorous 4.5-hour exams
  2. Have “4,000 hours of work experience and/or higher education that was acquired over a minimum of three sequential years.” Although the CFA Institute allows a fairly broad interpretation here, the experience usually has to be financial in nature.
  3. Join the CFA Institute by committing to its Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct

Candidates don’t necessarily need to have a university degree to qualify for the CFA.

Because of its focus on analysis, investment knowledge, and ethics, the CFA designation is widely recognized around the world and is the leading credential among financial professionals.

The CFA designation is widely recognized around the world because of its focus on analysis, investment knowledge, and ethics.

All charterholders are listed in the CFA Institute’s member directory with their contact details. This makes it easy for individuals, institutions, and corporations to locate charterholders, members, or financial advisors. The directory also notes whether members are in good standing with the institute.


Being a CFA charterholder provides the member with distinction and benefits. The designation is recognized as a benchmark, making charterholders appealing to potential employers. Because of the time, discipline, and dedication that it takes to pass the exams and become a member, charterholders often stand out. Earning the designation becomes even more critical as the workforce becomes more competitive.

There are also financial benefits that come with becoming a member of the CFA Institute. Salaries of members often may be higher compared to people who don’t hold the designation.

What Is the CFA Institute?

The CFA Institute is a global nonprofit professional organization of more than 170,000 charterholders, portfolio managers, and other financial professionals in more than 160 different global markets. The institute’s stated mission is to promote and develop a high level of educational, ethical, and professional standards in the investment industry.

The designation was first created in 1962, after financial analyst societies in four American cities—Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia—banded together and created a code of conduct. The first exam was held in 1963 with 284 candidates. The group awarded 268 charters that year. The name of the group was changed from the aforementioned AIMR to the CFA Institute in 2004.

CFA member societies are found all around the world. The locations with the most members include:

  • The United Kingdom
  • New York
  • Toronto
  • Hong Kong
  • Boston

The CFA Exams

Most people considering the CFA designation tend to worry about one thing: the exams. The exams are divided into three levels, all taken via computer. Level I is conducted four times per year, in February, May, August, and November. It tests the candidates’ knowledge of investment theory, ethics, financial accounting, and portfolio management.

Level II and Level III exams are held three times and twice a year, respectively, alternating between the same four months of the year as the Level I exam.

These are not easy tests. The CFA Institute estimates that more than 300 hours of studying is needed to pass each exam. Professionals attempting to study while still working in their field may find this to be a daunting task. However, many candidates consider the concentrated study that is required a better education than graduate school because of its total focus on investment management and practice.

CFA Pass Rates

This course of study was formed in 1962 and is constantly updated to ensure that the curriculum meets the demands of the global investment industry. This graduate-level curriculum generally entails six months of study prior to each exam date. Pass rates have varied from year to year since the first exam was given in 1963.

According to the institute, the November 2021 (Level III) and February 2022 (Level I and Level II) pass rates were:

  • Level I: 36%
  • Level II: 44%
  • Level III: 43%

Fewer than 10% of the candidates pass all three tests in the first three attempts, so it is important for candidates not to get discouraged.

CFA Careers

CFA charterholders can be found in different areas of the financial services industry, while others go on to work for governments in regulation and public policy. They often seek careers at institutional investment firms—such as hedge funds or mutual funds—broker-dealers, insurance companies, pension funds, banks, and universities. CFA members can be found at some of the world’s largest institutions, including Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and UBS.

CFA Designations and Investors

Investors who deal with CFA charterholders can make some basic assumptions. A CFA is generally committed to becoming better at their craft, whether it is security analysis, portfolio management, business reporting, or some other service. In addition, the individual has agreed to maintain a higher level of integrity by following the CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct.

In other words, investment professionals with a CFA designation have put in a significant amount of time and effort to better their skills and knowledge on behalf of their clients. This will come as a great comfort to most investors—especially if they are depending primarily on professional advice in managing their financial affairs.

Limitations of the CFA

Although there is a certain mastery required by the CFA exams when it comes to financial concepts and markets, having the CFA designation doesn’t automatically make one a better stock picker or more successful investor. Stock picking is a practical skill that must be developed through experience. The knowledge gained from studying for the CFA exam won’t hurt, but the certification alone isn’t going to make a market maven out of every charterholder.

That being said, there are some very well-known investment professionals who hold the CFA charter. Gary Brinson and Sir John Marks Templeton are two famous examples.

The Bottom Line

The CFA designation distinguishes charterholders from other practitioners in the eyes of professionals and investors. A successful CFA charterholder has proved their ability to complete rigorous testing, shown a capacity for learning, and made a serious commitment to conduct their professional life according to high ethical standards.

Article Sources
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