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CFA or MBA: Which is best for a finance career?

MBA or CFA

If you’re starting out in a finance career, or trying to move up, there’s a perennial debate that needs addressing – do you take the Chartered Financial Analyst qualification or embark on an MBA.

An MBA is the traditional route into investment banking, particularly in the U.S., but it’s lack of technical training often leaves new recruits lagging others in the organisation and MBAs are gravitating away from finance anyway.

The CFA, meanwhile, gives a great technical grounding, but doesn’t necessarily give you the management nous to navigate the financial services industry into the senior ranks.

This is how to decide.

Cost versus earning potential

The CFA is by far the cheaper option. This is to be expected; the largest proportion of CFA candidates at university, so it’s unlikely that hard-up students would want to fork out too much for the qualification.

It’s between $650-1280 to take each exam, depending on when you sign up – the earlier you do, the cheaper it is. Given that over 50% of students fail each year, expect to pay this more than once.

There’s still no contest. By contrast, tuition fees for MBAs at large business schools are anywhere between $60-100k, and that’s before an additional $40k is added on for books and living costs.

Pay for CFA charterholders is difficult to quantify, simply because the CFA Institute no longer tracks it. But our own research suggests that the biggest proportion of jobs requesting the CFA (41%) pay between $62-125k, and followed by $125-235k (31%). The last CFA Institute pay survey in 2005 put the average charterholder package at $150k.

QS puts the average salary for MBAs in finance graduating in 2015 within North America and Western Europe at $95k with a bonus of $20.5k. This seems a little low – at London Business School the average salary for MBAs going into finance was $117.6k, with a sign on bonus of $38.8k and a year-end bonus of $49.8k.

On average, it takes 3-4.5 years to pay off your MBA fees once you start working in the financial sector, which is not a bad investment.

Career options for MBAs and CFAs

To get into a business school in the first place, you’ll have started you career – most demand between four and five years’ work experience from those they take on. The CFA is increasingly taken on by students, but even allowing for that it’s something employers put their staff through during the early years.

Below is the breakdown of where CFA charterholders work. As you can see there’s a huge bias towards the buy-side with 23% working as portfolio managers and just 4% in investment banking analyst roles.

“The CFA has always been the dominant qualification on the buy-side,” says Nitin Mehta, CFA, managing director of CFA Institute in the EMEA region. “But it’s increasingly seen as useful for sell-side roles as the financial sector becomes more complex and demanding of technical expertise.”

It’s no secret that MBAs, particularly those in Europe, are turning to careers in tech over the traditional routes of consulting and finance. But those that do choose to stick in finance are seeing a revival of fortunes.

“Looking at our 2015 summer internship statistics we saw an increase of 43% of associate level hiring into investment banking division roles versus 2014,” says Richard Bland, head of employer engagement at London Business School.

Bland says that LBS MBAs account for 40% of those being hired into investment banking roles in the City. Last year, 28% went into finance – 12% into investment banking (down from 13% in 2013), 7% into private equity and 6% into fund management.

In the US, particularly at schools with historical ties to the financial sector, demand remains robust. At NY Stern, for example, 27% of the class of 2014 went into investment banking. At Wharton, 35.5% of last year’s class went into financial services, down from 38.5% the previous year and 14% went into investment banking.

But there’s one thing getting the job and quite another developing your career. Our research suggests that 16% of managing directors in finance have an MBA, compared to 7% of CFAs.

“The number of people being hired by the investment banks each year is in the early teens, it’s incredibly competitive and most being hired go through the formal associate programmes still,” says Bland.

“Financial markets are more connected than ever and the broad technical knowledge that the CFA gives will undoubtedly help with career progression,” says Mehta.

Demand for CFAs versus MBAs

Relatively speaking, the CFA is an exclusive club. There are 125,000 people who have passed all three exams globally after the 14,000 people who got through level three in June 2015 are added in. Around 72,000 of these are in the U.S.

MBAs are a vocation for elite students who can afford the fees, but here are around 100,000-150,000 people enrolling in MBAs every year in the U.S alone. Even at schools with close links to financial services firms, only around a quarter enter the industry upon graduation, but there are still a lot of MBAs out there.

However, (our) cold, hard stats suggest that the CFA is currently just edging demand. For all the jobs requiring a CFA qualification on eFinancialCareers, there are 19.3 resumes uploaded in the past three months that purport to have the necessary skills. There are 21.9 MBAs for every job requiring the qualification.

However, most financial services firms only hire from the elite schools (defined as London Business School, INSEAD, Harvard, Wharton, Columbia or IESE) from which there were only six candidates for every job.

“People think an MBA will automatically open doors, but people really need to go to the best school they possibly can,” says Bland. “The good schools have the connections with employers across a range of industries and top firms are actively recruit our graduates.”

Technical know-how versus strategists

If you want to pass the CFA the recommended time to put in is 300 hours of study per exam. The emphasis is very much on learning complex formulas across a range of technical subjects like quantitative methods, economics and financial reporting and analysis.

Mehta says this is the technical “toolkit” that will serve you well throughout your career, demonstrating to any potential employer that you’re both clued up on the industry know-how and possess the requisite commitment to develop your career. Any potential employer will therefore invest in you from both a career development point of view and, potentially, pay rises.

By contrast, MBA programmes tend to offer little in the way of technical education – indeed most business school graduates securing roles in finance worked in the industry before their MBA – and focus on general business and management topics.

This can cause issues in investment banks, with analysts resenting being managed by a newly-minted associate MBAs with little banking knowledge and poor modelling skills.

So far, so obvious. But it’s not as clean cut as this. Focusing on technical skills misses the point of hiring an MBA, says Bland: “A business school education is more holistic and recruiters value soft skills, commercial awareness in addition to technical skills,” he says. “Seeing the bigger picture about the growth prospects of a company, sector expertise, softer and broader management skills as well as the ability to build relationships are all developed during an MBA. Investment banks are increasingly asking for these over technical skills.”

Some MBA courses are also addressing this lack of technical knowledge. At HEC, for example, there’s a recently rolled out dual MBA and Masters in Finance course, which aims to be the best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, Mehta says the CFA curriculum has been changed since the financial crisis to emphasise softer knowledge. Firstly, there’s the emphasis on ethics – it accounts for 15% of the mark on level I.

“There’s more emphasis on financial history and how bubbles are created,” says Mehta. “We’re teaching people about models but also their limitations, which is a key piece of knowledge after the recent global crisis.”

The downside for any MBA seeking a banking job is that they’re only really hired into IBD functions rather than the markets business. This is down to banks increasingly wanting to train their own people from a graduate level, a reduced requirement in sales and trading and the lack of technical knowledge taught during an MBA.

Flexibility versus time commitment

If you wonder why so many people tend to fail the CFA at the first attempt, here’s one explanation. The “time commitment” – 300 hours of study for each exam – is similar to that of an MBA. But most people have to study while holding down a full-time job.

The MBA, by contrast, requires usually two years of solid commitment without any income. MBA candidates are banking on a boost to their earning potential and career prospects once they graduate, which could be considered a gamble as the number of opportunities in the financial sector have diminished in recent years.

What the CFA does have going for it, though, is flexibility. The distant learning aspect means that people can take the exam according to their own commitments and continue to develop their career while studying.

“I would argue that an MBA and CFA are not mutually exclusive,” says Mehta, who incidentally has both. “But it’s usual for people to study the CFA early while also focusing on developing their career, and take an MBA later on.”

This means you could have started the CFA whilst undertaking a graduate training scheme in, say, London and finish it four years later while working in New York.

Career path versus exit options

More than ever, financial services firms are looking for knowledge of complex products, argues Mehta.

Candidates are starting the CFA even before they enter the financial sector because a tighter job market means employers are no longer likely to take a punt on an academically excellent candidates with little technical knowledge.

Candidates are often armed with internships, undergraduate degrees, masters in finance degrees and a CFA level I.

The CFA provides a handy visual guide to how taking the qualification has led to some less than linear career paths for its members, who have switched from equities to tech advisory functions, or private equity back into corporate finance.

The MBA, particularly those from elite schools, offer something else – exit options. Bland says that students have to demonstrate commitment to investment banking or another part of the financial sector to be considered for a role currently, but this doesn’t mean it’s the only option.

A lot of people take MBAs with the aim of advancing their finance career, but end up moving into another sector entirely, particularly if they attend an elite school where a range of employers swoop on MBA candidates during various networking and recruitment events.

“We’ve had people who started out trying to get into investment banking or private equity, but ended up working for Shell,” he says. “An MBA offers that unrivalled diversity of career options.”

Comments (10)

Comments
  1. “We’ve had people who started out trying to get into investment banking or private equity, but ended up working for Shell,” he says.

    Translated: Students thought they can get an MBA and waltz (back?) into IB or move to PE, they failed and now have to work for Shell. After paying for fees, life expenses and losing 2y in income, bonuses and perks. “Unrivalled diversity of career options” means that you’ll be happy with any management job becouse now you’re in debt up to your eyeballs.

  2. The MBA is irrelevant for most financial services jobs. The only reason banks hire them is because associates leave for private equity.

  3. Stating that all MBA’s lose 2 years of work is a fallacy for those of us that had to work full time and finish our PMBA’s. CFA’s do mote learning and once they pass the exam, they lose much of the knowledge if you do not get your IB or PE job soon after certification, then your skills are limited in a year or 2. The CFA is designed to make the founders of the certification rich and for the hiring managers that hirer them to justify their own choices of paying thousands of dollars to take an exam that any of the information covered can now be found on the internet within seconds. Any type of financial technical skill can be learned through the various resources online for free. It is purely elitism. The MBA at my uni was $65k + and digging out of that debt has taken much longer than 3 years. A CFA is a cheaper alternative with just as much weight as a MBA with a focus on advanced fixed income as the one I took, so take the CFA. Good luck getting a CFA to sponsor you though if you do not have the contacts to get a job in IB or PE. It is a dying breed and the layoffs are horrendous.

  4. Nice comment MBA2xpensive. As mr Miyagi’ve said in karate kid movie you cannot learn karate from book and same goes for finance. CFA nor MBA won’t make you expert it is just inflated ticket to get your ass in finance industry, once you there its up to your talent and commitment, luck and several other factors to make good buck.

  5. meh. if you can get in a hbs, Wharton or booth tier business school do it. it’s not that expensive and you’ll make the tuition back in less than a year.

  6. would not say so. value of each is dependent on time, site and chance. it can not be rationally estimated its further opportunities..

  7. Definitely go to grad school. The CFA exam is curved. A lot of those candidates, including the ~60% of candidates who do not pass, retake the exam. Some say the minimum passing score is re-calibrated to generate future revenue. Others call it a glorified pyramid scheme. Depends who you ask. CFA means you most likely failed twice and spent so much time studying you decided to take the exam again and again. You definitely learn a lot…

    According to the CFA Institute, approximately 25% of candidates are not admitted to the exam on exam day by 3rd-party minimally trained proctors (hired by CFA). And no refunds (~$1600/exam + approx 300 hours of study).

    This does not include the people accused of cheating during the exam. The exam is not recorded or monitored in any way other than sketchy part-time proctors who barely speak English. If you’re suspected of cheating or “give the appearance of cheating”, you’re SOL. There are more CFA horror stories than successes.

  8. Definitely go to grad school. The CFA exam is curved. A lot of those candidates, including the ~60% of candidates who do not pass, retake the exam. Some say the minimum passing score is re-calibrated to generate future revenue. Others call it a glorified pyramid scheme. Depends who you ask. CFA means you most likely failed twice and spent so much time studying you decided to take the exam again and again. You definitely learn a lot…

    According to the CFA Institute, approximately 25% of candidates are not admitted to the exam on exam day by 3rd-party minimally trained proctors (hired by CFA). And no refunds (~$1600/exam + approx 300 hours of study).

    This does not include the people accused of cheating during the exam. The exam is not recorded or monitored in any way other than sketchy part-time proctors who barely speak English. If you’re suspected of cheating or “give the appearance of cheating”, you’re SOL. There are more CFA horror stories than successes.

  9. 24 CVs for every job asking for the CFA qualification on e-Financial Careers over the last three months, compared to 27 people with an MBA for every role requiring the qualification. However, most financial services firms only hire from the elite schools (defined as London Business School, INSEAD, Harvard, Wharton, Columbia or IESE) from which there were only six candidates for every job.

  10. Very useful bar chart…. Really tells me a lot…..

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