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

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 (or do something totally different?). 

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. And CFA and MBA qualifications are more relevant in some sectors of investment banks than others. 

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 are at university, so it’s unlikely that hard-up students would want to fork out too much for the qualification.

It’s between $930-1,380 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. Most MBAs are also in high-earning jobs before they start. Bloomberg suggests that the average Harvard MBA earns $90k before enrolling for an MBA - lost wages plus the cost of attendance means an average cost of $384k.

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. Within financial services, this appears a little low and most MBAs have seen pay increase if they go into the sector. Salaries for MBAs going into investment banking at Wharton, Columbia, Yale, Chicago Booth and MIT Sloan have increased from $100k in 2014 to $125k for the class of 2015, according to employment reports. At London Business School, the average MBA investment banking salary was $126.3k, with a sign in bonus of $52.6k.

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, particularly in fund management.

Below is the breakdown of where CFA charterholders work. As you can see there’s a huge bias towards the buy-side with 22% working as portfolio managers, 15% as research analysts 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.

Richard Bland, head of employer engagement at London Business School, says that LBS MBAs account for 40% of those being hired into investment banking roles in the City. Last year, 27% went into finance – 8% into investment banking (down from 12% in 2015), 8% into private equity and 5% into fund management.

In the US, particularly at schools with historical ties to the financial sector, demand remains robust - albeit on a downward keel. At NY Stern, for example, 24% of the class of 2015 went into investment banking. At Wharton, 38.4% of last year’s class went into financial services, up from from 35% the previous year and 14.4% went into investment banking.

But there’s one thing getting the job and quite another developing your career. Our research suggests that 14% of managing directors in finance have an MBA, compared to 10% 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,” adds Mehta.

Demand for CFAs versus MBAs

Relatively speaking, the CFA is an exclusive club. There are 135,000 people who have passed all three exams globally after the 28,884 people who got through level three in June 2016 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. Softer topics such as ethics have gained more traction in recent years, but it's still a highly quantitative exam.

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.”

AUTHORPaul Clarke
  • Jo
    18 November 2017

    My MBA school is in California, Not on the Ivy league school but best curriculum . My area of specialization is in Finance and Banking and hope to find a great job after graduating . The curriculum and the specialization are very importance since that will take care of you after school. Not in the so call ivy school but my school is doing a great job , restructuring its curriculum every day so that they will be useful or relevant to the needs of today's complex, dynamic and competitive world. Check out the MBA, Finance and Banking specialization at California Intercontinental University. About to finish and will go for my Doctorate degree in Global Operations and Supply Chain Management . Yep, these are some of the majors employers are looking for.

  • Da
    8 April 2016

    Some site are particularly favoring few qualifications, especially like CFA and MBA. It is marketing strategy adopted to earn indirect revenue. There are other qualification like MS in Finance, ACCA, CPA, CGMA, CIMA, CA are also preferred qualification and equally recognized. There is a competitor for CFA, which is CIIA, an equally respected qualification. ACIIA does involve itself in marketing CIIA so much as CFA institute is doing. CFA or any other qualification does not make you genius out of the box. What you learn in CFA, you will also learn while pursuing other qualification like ACCA, ACA, CPA, CIIA, MS in Finance with similar curriculum.

    I cleared CPA in 1st attempt and proud to be CPA

  • is
    17 September 2015

    Readers' opinions are so varied one would tend to doubt the genuiness of CPA exams. I think CPA should comment on these varied views , otherwise they may affect public assessment of the Institution.

  • Sh
    28 August 2015

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

  • ne
    neha gupta
    14 February 2015

    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.

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