CFA, a precious title
Presentation of Odrée Ducharme
Our interviewee, Odrée Ducharme, has been President of the Board of Directors of CFA Montreal since October 2021. She has been a member of the association’s Board of Directors since 2016. She is also Senior Director, Strategy and Execution, Investment Funds and External Management at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, where she is responsible for deploying strategic initiatives. This is an area she knows well as she previously held the positions of Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships for Developed Markets, as well as Senior Director, Global Strategy. She has been with CDPQ since 2005. She also previously worked at CIBC as a financial services specialist. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from HEC Montreal and has been a CFA charterholder since 2008.
On March 29, 2022, we had the opportunity to interview Odrée Ducharme, President of CFA Montreal and Senior Director, Strategy and Execution, Investment Funds and External Management at CDPQ. During this interview, our main mission was to familiarize our readers with the title and the CFA organization. To this end, the presentation of the path leading to the CFA designation will first be discussed. Then, the usefulness of the designation will be presented. The last section of this article will offer readers tips related to the CFA program that our interviewer shared throughout the interview.
Presentation of the path leading to the CFA designation
The CFA program, an acronym for Chartered Financial Analyst, is a 3-level post-baccalaureate program, all of which are assessed by a separate exam. The CFA program focuses on the practical and essential knowledge required to make investment decisions and covers a variety of general topics including equity and fixed income analysis, portfolio management and corporate finance. This program is usually taken by students with backgrounds in finance and investment, although more and more engineering students are taking up the challenge.
The program began in 1947, when four chapters of financial analysts in Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia came together to share best practices in the profession. In 1962, these same chapters created the first CFA exam as well as the CFA Code of Conduct specific to the designation in order to defend the best practices. The following year, in 1963, 284 candidates registered for the first exam and 268 passed. Several years later, in 2004, the name was changed from the Association for Investment Management and Research to the same name as the exam, CFA Institute (Wikipedia, 2022). The CFA Institute is the global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence and qualifications. The organization makes a point of ethical behavior in the investment markets and serves as a respected source of knowledge in the global financial community. As of today, there are 180,000 CFA charterholders worldwide in 160 countries. The CFA Society has been present in Montreal since 1950 and currently has 3200 members, making CFA Montreal the 10th largest chapter in the world. The average age of the holders is 43 years old and although only 17% of the members are currently women, 27% of the candidates registered for the next exams are women.
One of the main advantages of the designation is its notoriety. Indeed, the CFA designation allows for international recognition since the knowledge evaluation process is the same worldwide. The CFA designation is recognized as one of the highest distinctions in the investment world. The training provided is not limited to investment concepts; a significant portion of the concepts and exam questions are related to the ethical aspect of the profession, as well as professional standards.
A second advantage of the program is its flexibility. To obtain the CFA designation, students are required to pass three different exams, each corresponding to a distinct level, to accumulate 4000 hours of work experience in a sector recognized by the CFA and to obtain three letters of recommendation. Students are free to study as they wish since there are no mandatory courses or time requirements, although 300 hours of study are suggested per exam, on average. It is possible for students to use only the books and the established curriculum. Others may prefer to seek academic support, with some institutions or third parties offering courses for exam preparation. For example, the Canadian Derivatives Institute and HEC Montreal offer an accessible and practical approach to teaching the knowledge required by the CFA Institute to pass the CFA program exams. Depending on your preferences, it is also possible to find shorter courses of one or a few weeks for each level. On average, the 3 levels for the exams are passed in 4 years, however, it would be possible to complete the entire process in as little as 18 to 24 months, depending on the sequence used to register for the exams.
Each exam is 4.5 hours in length and requires 6 months of preparation. These exams form the core of the program as no other form of assessment is used during the training. These exams are taken on computer in rooms chosen by the CFA Institute. For more flexibility, three exam dates are available per year for levels I and II and two dates are available for level III. To enroll in the CFA program, you need to hold a bachelor’s degree or to be in the final year of any bachelor’s degree. Although all bachelor’s degrees are eligible, some students will have an easier time because of the related fields of study, such as mathematics, finance or engineering.
The cost of the CFA program varies depending on various terms such as early registration periods for exams, number of retakes required to pass a level, etc. The overall cost is between $3000 USD and $4800 USD.
Utility of the CFA designation
This section is dedicated to presenting the usefulness of the CFA designation and the various advantages for holders of this designation.
The CFA designation, which is now recognized internationally, originated in the United States. Nearly 58% of holders are from the Americas, 13% from Europe and almost 30% from Asia. This last geographic region is the one that is experiencing the greatest growth of the title where it is in high demand. Montreal is the 10th largest CFA Society in the world.
The CFA designation is often portrayed as additional training that is worth having, but it is important to note that some employers require it for certain types of positions. This is especially true for positions for asset managers in the stock markets and financial analysts. CFA charter holders also have access to careers in related fields, such as risk management or asset management in private markets, such as real estate, infrastructure, or private equity.
In addition to the diverse knowledge that comes with the CFA designation, it has several other advantages. The most important is the credibility that comes with the designation on an international scale. Holding a CFA designation can also increase the salary of the holder depending on the company involved. On the other hand, the CFA designation serves as an important distinction in terms of access to coveted positions in the market.
Tips for a successful CFA course
Since it is stated on the CFA Institute website that only 1 in 5 applicants will earn the CFA designation, Odrée offered some advice to maximize the chances of future applicants. She suggests starting the CFA program as early as possible in one’s career path, ideally during the last year of undergraduate studies. This advice is based on two important aspects: taking advantage of a period when there is more study time available as well as being able to take advantage of the benefits of holding the designation as early in one’s career as possible. Secondly, she suggested getting her hands on mock exams: CFA exams are very long exams and it is not only knowledge that is tested, but also how to apply it in a practical way.
An important aspect of taking the relatively time-consuming and challenging CFA program is to be able to use it effectively within the company and in your career. To do so, Odrée has put the emphasis on the CFA network that is created when one holds the accreditation. This network gives access to training, allows one to stay abreast of various trends and to continue to improve one’s knowledge and skills in relation to industry trends and developments. Holders of the CFA designation also have the privilege of adding the letters CFA to their name, an addition that does not go unnoticed by the companies concerned.
Secondly, although all baccalaureate degrees are recognized for enrollment in the CFA program, Odrée pointed out that there are very complementary training programs that are currently in demand by companies looking for CFA holders: the BAA from business schools, but also more and more engineering degrees. Indeed, engineers have a very complementary training to that of the CFA program since, through their courses and specializations, they become familiar with the integration of technologies in investments as well as the integration of ESG standards in processes. The most sought-after courses for engineers are those in software or computer science, given the increasingly important role that artificial intelligence is playing in finance. Beyond the specific training required to obtain the designation, the training offered by the CFA Institute and the CFA companies adapts to global and market trends. For example, CFA Montreal offers several training courses, particularly in programming such as Python. This is done not only to be able to understand the language, but also to be able to collaborate with specialists of this language on projects using it and thus be as useful as possible.
Finally, CFA training can sometimes be compared to a master’s degree in a finance-related field. Obviously, each training has its strong points, those of the CFA program are, as specified by Odrée, the fact of having an important and extensive training on ethics, the flexibility of the program as well as the autonomy in relation to the learning. Secondly, the cost of obtaining the CFA designation is also a competitive point, as presented above. Finally, the CFA designation allows access to or promotes candidacy for a wide range of different jobs because the diversity of content is vast, which is not necessarily the case for a master’s degree, where the objective is generally to specialize in one area. Odrée also noted that many candidates combine both educational backgrounds, resulting in candidates with very comprehensive skills and knowledge.