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Many financial professionals earn certifications to prove their expertise. While some of these designations, like the Certified Public Account (CPA) license, are quite common and mandatory for particular roles, relatively few individuals may pursue highly specialized certifications, like the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA).
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Certifications signify various types of expertise within the financial services industry, though several relate to financial planning. After passing a credentialing process, professionals are qualified to perform specific work for their clients.
Here are the top 10 financial certifications professionals can earn:
- Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
- Personal Finance Specialist (PFS)
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
- Chartered Investment Counselor (CIC)
- Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)
- Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA)
- Financial Risk Manager (FRM)
- Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA)
- Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU)
1. Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
The Certified Financial Planner certification is one of the most popular financial credentials, and CFPs are qualified to handle a wide variety of financial services. About 1 in 5 financial advisors in the U.S. is a CFP.
Expertise: A Certified Financial Planner can handle a broad range of financial planning situations. They can help you with filing your taxes, manage your investments and plan for retirement — including creating a plan to save up for it and handle expenses once you retire. A CFP also can help assess your insurance coverage and plan for education expenses.
Requirements to earn: There are “4 E’s” for CFP credentialing: education, exam, experience and ethics. CFPs must complete coursework through a CFP Board-registered program, hold a bachelor’s degree, pass a 170-question CFP exam, have 6,000 hours of professional experience or 4,000 hours of apprenticeship, and complete an ethics requirement.
2. Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
A Certified Public Accountant is licensed to work as an accountant and prepare taxes. Some CPAs work with individuals who have unique tax needs and some work on behalf of large corporations. For tax professionals, a CPA is an industry-standard certification.
Expertise: A CPA can work in many tax-related roles, including as accountants, auditors and tax consultants. CPAs often use their expertise to work on topics related to tax accounting, including financial planning and consulting, even if they’re not necessarily working as an accountant.
Requirements to earn: CPAs must pass an exam containing four sections: auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting, and reporting and regulation. These professionals must complete at least 150 hours of relevant education and abide by certain state requirements, depending on where they do business. There are also ethics and continuing education requirements for CPAs.
3. Personal Finance Specialist (PFS)
CPAs who want to expand the types of services they offer can obtain a Personal Finance Specialist certification. After becoming a PFS, these accountants are credentialed to work in personal financial planning and wealth management in addition to tax accounting.
Expertise: A CPA who works on specific, granular tax accounting may not find a PFS credential especially useful; but for CPAs who work on taxes as part of an individual’s financial situation, a PFS credential can help them offer valuable financial planning services to their clients.
Requirements to earn: There are a few different options for gaining a PFS certification, but every pathway requires passing an exam related to financial planning. These individuals must also complete continuous professional education ahead of their exams. A CPA certification is a prerequisite for earning a PFS credential as well.
4. Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
Chartered Financial Analysts are qualified to work with investments and securities. They can manage investment strategies and portfolios for individuals or work for bigger wealth management firms.
Expertise: The CFA designation provides a broad range of detailed investment training, including quantitative methods for investing, the economics of the investing world, analysis related to investment performance, and more complex investment mechanisms like derivatives.
Requirements to earn: In order to earn a CFA, applicants must pass three levels of examinations, achieve qualified work experience, submit professional letters of reference and submit an application to the CFA Institute.
5. Chartered Investment Counselor (CIC)
The Chartered Investment Counselor is an additional credential that someone who holds a CFA can pursue. Issued by the Investment Advisor Association (IAA), a CIC means that a CFA is a fiduciary — meaning they’re an investment advisor who must provide the best possible advice to their clients.
Expertise: A CFA qualifies someone to work with investments and securities, and a CIC charter means that this individual has the legal obligation to work in the best interest of clients. These two types of professionals have the same areas of expertise, including broad knowledge of investing in the stock market.
Requirements to earn: In order to qualify to become a CIC, applicants must already hold a CFA designation, have a minimum of five cumulative years of work experience in eligible occupational positions, work for a member firm of the IAA, and spend more than half of work time related to investment counseling and portfolio management.
6. Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)
Chartered Financial Consultants offer a broad range of services, including financial planning, risk management, retirement and investment strategies, and estate planning. The American College of Financial Services offers the program and certification. ChFC courses also fulfill the education requirements for CFPs.
Expertise: A ChFC is qualified to work in the same areas as a CFP; broadly speaking, these professionals help individuals with financial consulting and can branch into more specific areas like retirement savings and tax strategies. These financial consultants take one additional class than CFPs, which is called Contemporary Applications in Financial Planning.
Requirements to earn: A Chartered Financial Consultant must have three years of full-time business experience within five years of receiving the charter. They must also take 27 credits worth of education and then complete 30 credits per two-year period after receiving the charter and passing an examination.
7. Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA)
A Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst has a highly specialized focus in alternative types of investments as determined by the CAIA Association. These analysts have deep knowledge of alternative investments, including speculation in public equity and debt markets.
Expertise: CAIA coursework includes topics related to real assets, commodities, hedge funds, private equity, credit risk, and derivatives. Someone with a CAIA charter is more likely to work in a large firm with that type of experience rather than as a personal investment advisor.
Requirements to earn: A CAIA must pass two examinations regarding the asset classes and investment techniques covered in the coursework for the charter. The second assessment covers the knowledge learned in the first assessment in a portfolio context.
8. Financial Risk Manager (FRM)
Risk managers in the financial space often earn the Financial Risk Manager certification. These professionals have specialized roles in financial institutions, anticipating and adapting to risk issues facing various markets and industries.
Expertise: As part of their coursework, FRMs learn about financial markets and products, valuation and risk models, credit risk measurement, and current issues in financial markets. They’re broadly qualified to assess risk levels.
Requirements to earn: A candidate earns the FRM certification after passing two exams and demonstrating two years of relevant work experience. FRMs are encouraged but not required to earn 40 hours of professional development every two years.
9. Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA)
A Certified Investment Management Analyst works with many of the same types of individuals as a CFP or ChFC, but the CIMA certification is specialized for managing the portfolios of high net worth clients. As defined by the SEC, high net worth individuals are those with at least $750,000 under the management of an advisor, or a net worth believed to be at least $1.5 million.
Expertise: During their training, CIMAs learn about investment fundamentals and portfolio theory, as well as portfolio construction and investment consulting. These analysts can pair this certification with other specialized investment credentials if they work for a bigger firm.
Requirements to earn: A CIMA must pass online qualification and certification exams after completing the educational component. These analysts must have at least three years of financial service experience and complete 40 hours of continuing education after obtaining the certification.
10. Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU)
CLUs specialize in life insurance and estate planning. Many CFPs also choose to acquire a Chartered Life Underwriter charter so they’re more qualified to handle those specific elements of their clients’ financial situations.
Expertise: A Chartered Life Underwriter has extensive training in life insurance underwriting and related concepts. The specialization helps them inform clients about how best to approach risk management and estate planning in addition to their life insurance policies.
Requirements to earn: In order to earn a CLU designation, applicants must complete five core and three elective courses for a total of 24 credit hours. After passing an exam for each course, these individuals must complete 30 hours of professional development every two years.
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