On persistence or how I aced the CFA exams

On Persistence, or how I aced the CFA exams

Anyone can achieve anything if he is willing to put in the work necessary to achieve their goal. This sounds like the classical catchphrase from a motivation guru but I truly believe in this mantra. I’d like to share with you some impressions of my journey to earn my CFA charter (A placeholder for any goal you may like to achieve) and the ups and downs I went through, the mistakes I made, and what helped me ultimately to achieve my goal.
Spoiler alert! Nor was it easy or an overnight miracle… I put in hours and hours of work, challenging my body and mind to the max. Hopefully, you can take a piece of advice or two and apply it to the specific challenge you encounter at the moment and ultimately be successful. There are countless guides to pass the CFA exams, so I don’t want to repeat the obvious things and only want to point out what worked for me.
I was just one semester shy of finishing my masters degree back in 2017 when I set course for the journey I went trough over the next 3 years.  In retrospect, to be honest, it is hard to recollect what lead me to the decision to pursue the CFA charter, it may was because I wanted to push myself (I had the feeling that my learning potential was not maxed out) or the curiosity to learn, or both.
Besides studying at the university, I was working part-time in the asset management department of an insurance company and a colleague of mine had recently earned his charter.  We had a lot of discussions about the value of the program as well as the possibilities it offered.  My employer at that time also heavily encouraged me to do it and supported me financially as well.
I decided to enroll, knowing I had an enormous challenge in front of me.
With this short memo, like to point out some general principles I adhered to and how persistence helped me master this challenge. You will also find some useful resources, which can be used during preparation at the end of the article.

Take your time to prepare properly

Round about Christmas in 2017 I started my journey with some research on how to prepare for the exam in a proper way. First, I was stunned by the amount of work this would require, on average candidates put in more than 300 hours of preparation to pass each level. In hindsight, it was a lot more than that. 
A lot of websites suggest you set out a well-thought-through study plan to achieve your learning goals in time and don’t get in a hurry when the exam deadline approaches.  I often tried to apply this mantra but hadn’t much success with it. I frequently failed to keep up with the schedule, resulting in more concentrated study periods in the final months before the exams.
Nevertheless, I’d like to outline the approach, which worked fine for me.
I used an insight I developed throughout my time at the university. During exam preparation, I frequently tried to do anything I could (mentally and physically), so if I would fail the exam, I wouldn’t have to blame myself for not putting in the work. During the semester I usually kept study efforts loosely, only doing enough to stay up to date and have a sufficient overview of the course material I needed to cover since I also wanted to have some kind of life besides working and studying. After 3/4  of the semester I would pick up efforts continuously and roundabout six to eight weeks before the exams, I started sitting for study sessions of 8-12 hours a day. With the exams approaching, my efforts would become even more extreme, studying 12+ hours a day, seven days a week.  I optimized my whole day for optimal study performance.
In retrospect, this wasn’t a healthy study schedule but it laid the foundation I used for completing the CFA exams at each first attempt. Through the years I learned valuable lessons on how to improve my study performance and the corresponding results.
When I sat for the first exam, you could only apply for the June or December sessions. I always went for the June option.
To make sure, there is sufficient time to cover all the course material, I suggest you start at least six months prior to the respective exams. I always used the Christmas holidays to kick off my study efforts and make myself familiar with the course material. First, I read and re-read the course material over the first 3 months of the preparation period and after that, started answering the practice questions and mock exams.
Over the years I discovered that the information would be best remembered when I read and re-read the material and complete the practice questions in parallel.  I used a very naive technique to ensure I did everything I could to pass the exams. I tried to repeat this process as many times as possible until ca. 2 weeks prior to the exams. Usually, I was able to cover the course material three times during this period.
Prior to the exams I always took two weeks off to fully concentrate on my preparation. This period consisted of intensive study sessions, where I focused on my weak spots as well as areas with the highest weighting.  Throughout the preparation, I did between 2 and 3 mock exams each. It is important to simulate actual exam conditions as much as possible.
Don’t panic, if your score on the mock exams isn’t around 90% consistently. I scored between 60-80% in all of my mock exams and managed to ace the exams on the first attempt. Nevertheless, at the end of your study period, you should be able to score around 70-80%, to have enough confidence for the exam and don’t need to pray for good luck.
Every level of the CFA program comes with a thick book of formulas, usually around 100 pages strong. To counter my forgetfulness, two weeks prior to the exams I would rehearse the whole formula book once a day. So at the end of the preparation, I knew most of the formulas covered. Often I studied formulas before sleeping time and I had the impression that I was able to imprint the formulas into my brain during the night and ultimately remembered more.

Use additional learning material

The CFA curriculum is known for its enormous depth and easily contains a few thousand pages for each level. There are some areas where you won’t need to study the whole thing to master the exams. I have made the experience that the additional learning material (e.g. Efficient learning, Schweser, etc.) is valuable in terms of providing a sufficient summary of the curriculum as well as a ton of practice questions and mock exams. Personally, I went with the efficient learning materials for each level, which in hindsight was a great investment.
Helpful resources were various websites regarding the preparation for the CFA program www.analystforum.com or 300hours.com, which provide you with useful insider tips for preparation. Besides putting in the necessary work, I’d propose that the additional learning material is the second most important key to acing the exams.

Time managment is key

One mission-critical thing during the exam is the lack of time to complete it. The exams are designed to challenge your time management skills. I used a simple method to make sure, I don’t waste too much time and answer all exam questions. To speed up your performance during the exam it is essential to practice using your calculator correctly. You need to know the different calculation methods and how to switch between them easily.
If I had to think about how to solve the question I was working on in an extensive way, I skipped it and marked it to solve it at a later stage, if there was time left at the end. I suggest you do the same if you don’t remember how to approach a specific problem immediately. Otherwise, you will run into severe problems regarding finishing the exam in time.  You can come back to questions you skipped initially when you solved all questions you are certain about. Since most parts of all three levels are in some kind of multiple-choice questions, I highly recommend at least checking one of the possible answer boxes so you may get lucky by ticking the correct one.

Grant yourself enough rest, sleep well and exercise

One monumental thing I learned throughout my years of preparation is to grant yourself enough rest, to perform on a high level consistently. Therefore, during the second and third exams, I limited my average study session to around 8 hours, to get enough rest as well as to have time for other activities. This pays enormous dividends later on because your brain will perform more reliably.
During the whole process of mastering the CFA program, I went through multiple periods of extreme mental and emotional stress. I have to admit, that I even went through dark periods a few times during the preparation for the first exam due to the overwhelming amount of stuff to cover and I felt that I didn’t do enough. It may sound esoteric but I made the experience that meditation, regular exercise, and eating well build a good base for optimal mental performance.  Especially during the last exam preparation, I studied for 8 hours, exercised for one to one and a half hours during the lunch break, and adhered to a more or less strict diet. As a result, it felt like there was a lot less stress on my mind as well as my body.
I also used the app headspace to sometimes meditate between study sessions or to listen to focus music while studying. It felt a bit like resetting my brain to take on the next chapters of the curriculum. It never fully restored my mental abilities during the day but did only enough to be a bit more focused and keep going. For me, it’s the small details that make the difference between passing and failing.

Plan your exam days and create a familiar environment

This piece of advice may have been more valuable as the CFA exams weren’t structured as computer exams. Nevertheless, I think these tips are of equal use today. I took all my CFA exams in Frankfurt. The first two exams took place at the big exhibition hall and the last one was held in various decentralized locations where you sat in supervised computer rooms.
Before my first exam, I searched for a hotel, which was within walking distance of the testing site as well so I didn’t have to think about how to get to the testing site. I also looked for hotels that weren’t perceived as accommodation for students or people looking to party, since you need uninterrupted sleep to perform best.  I did this to minimize possible distractions and create some kind of positive and familiar environment, once I knew this worked for me.
Between study sessions, you are allowed to leave the exam site for one to one and a half hours. I recommend you take some snacks with you, so you don’t have to search for food and waste valuable resting time. Go with some light snacks which don’t fill up your stomach or cause a food coma. Some fruits to restore your glycogen levels in your brain are good as well.

Conclusion

To master any challenge you may face right now, you need to show a high degree of persistence. In this world, there is hardly anything given to you for free.
I hope you took a few things from this short memo on how to master complicated challenges and develop persistence. There is no secret sauce, only work and a few tweaks you can make to tilt the odds in your favor. I’m sure there are a dozen more useful tips out there and look forward to learning more about being persistent.

Additional resources

What I read this week…

What I read last week

Financial Markets

Everyone should be aware of how his or her own personality affects investment behavior. When you identify your key personality traits, you can tailor the investment process to maximize the probability of achieving your goals. 

Manage your personality in investing!

All investment strategies more or less rely on some kind of forecasting the development of asset prices. In my opinion, it is essential to understand when to forecast and how to assess the degree of certainty of your prediction. I try to make as few forecasts as possible and increase the degree of certainty by extending the time horizon under consideration.

When and how to forecast!

The breadth of alternative investments is ever-increasing and institutional investors are looking both for current income and yield. An increasing number of asset managers are investing in the business of royalties which promises a stable cash flow profile.

Music royalties as an alternative investment!

Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital is one of my favorite authors regarding investment topics. In his newest article, he joins the long-discussed topic of value vs. growth investing. I agree with him that one should not only pay attention to the mere definition, but use a more agnostic approach. 

What is of value?

 

Business & Strategy

Over the past years, due to government incentives, there has been an ever-increasing number of electric cars sold. In the meantime, however, the resources needed for construction are becoming scarce. A variety of companies are pushing for ways to recycle old car batteries but it will be a while before the technologies are commercially viable.

Recycling of old electric car batteries gains momentum!

Reading & Writing

Morgan Housel shares his views on reading and writing. Although this is a quite short article, you can take away some important insights from it.

Read more, write more!

What I read this week…

What I read last week

Financial Markets

The year 2020 was an extraordinary one, especially for financial markets. If you walked away from the stock market and just looked at the year-end returns, you would think it was just an ordinary year. Under the surface, there was plenty of fascinating stuff going on.

The year 2020 in returns

The importance of network effects in business and finance can’t be overstated. I’m increasingly drawn to this concept of interaction and its influence on market participants.

Just how important are network effects in finance?

I read a lot of research throughout the week and I’m constantly looking for new resources. There are plenty of good websites that keep track of worthwhile investment whitepapers.

 A collection of whitepapers published in December 2020

The market environment which unfolded over the past decades is basically uncharted territory for asset allocators. Textbook theories do not necessarily apply here and the implications for portfolio construction are not straightforward. Due to historically low bond yields, institutions tilted their portfolios heavily in favor of equity investments and influenced overall market dynamics.

Uncharted market territory

Implications for asset allocation (Podcast)

Business & Strategy

Much has been written about the impact behavioral design can have on people. The importance of default settings, be it regarding savings decisions or user data transparency is well described in the following article by Ben Thompson.

Maybe we should rethink our own “default” behavior?

Should we aim for new defaults?

Over the last decades, the cost of solar energy production has decreased significantly. As a result, companies are now building an increasing number of solar power plants, where the low cost of solar panels allows significant oversizing.

In the future, the surplus energy could be used for the production of hydrogen or stored in batteries.

Optimizing grid capacity

Mental models guide your way

Mental models guide your way

Throughout the last years, working in financial markets, I sometimes struggled with the amount of information raining down on me. Due to the constant news flow and wave of quotes, making sense of markets and execute your strategy can be difficult.
Searching for ways to be more focused and consistent, I discovered the concept of mental models. Through their application, I’m able to process information more efficiently and see through the fog of war. In essence, Mental models describe general thinking principles of how the world around us is working. They are used in almost any domain, be it economics, physics, or biology. Mental models are deeply rooted in the evolutionary tendency of our brains to generalize from information. They help us make sense of the world and guide us to make better and more consistent decisions. They reduce complexity which in return frees up brain capacity.
Due to my curiosity regarding a wide range of different subjects, I intend to acquire as many mental models as possible. Ideally, one can combine the various models from different disciplines (e.g. physics, biology, and economics) and weave a multidimensional network of principles. The more mental models you acquire, the more you can make sense of the things going on around you. This effect also can be seen in the collaboration of multidisciplinary teams. People with different backgrounds bring different mental models to the table which can increase overall decision-making quality.
One vivid example of the value of combining different mental models is the application of evolutionary theory to financial markets. There is a variety of different market participants using different investment strategies. In the course of time, profitable investors survive while unsuccessful ones lose their capital and get extinct.  Markets behave with respect to the current ecosystem of participants and investment strategies.
A recent resemblance of this phenomenon is the investment strategy of volatility selling which was used heavily in equities over the past few years. Market participants would generate a steady income stream by selling options or combinations thereof and only would lose money if a significant rise in volatility would occur. The extensive utilization of this strategy led to a low volatility market environment, which in turn was perceived as confirmation of success. In February of 2018 short vol strategies were put to a test, when volatility markets blew up, a number of market participants were wiped out, and markets switched to an overall more volatile regimen. After trending down again for more than two years, COVID-19 send volatility skyrocketing and bankrupted even more investors employing short vol strategies, changing the market ecosystem permanently.
Following this short example of how you can apply and combine mental models, I will share some models which I assess as the most valuable. This list can be extended by any number of examples. Please refer to the links provided at the end of the article for additional resources.

First principles thinking

The mental model of “first principles thinking” describes how one deconstructs problems into their basic components. These components are then used to build up a solution for the problem at hand. First-principles thinking is contrary to thinking by analogy, which is used most in our society. By reasoning from first principles, one can come up with far more innovative solutions to a problem because established paradigms are ignored. A brilliant example of first principles thinking is given by Elon Musk in this short interview.
One of the most important first principles of finance is “there is no free lunch”. To earn a return on your investment you have to assume some kind of risk. When analyzing an investment ask yourself:  What are the risks regarding this investment? Am I compensated well for assuming the risks, especially with respect to opportunity costs?
When there is no intelligent answer to this kind of question, the odds are high that you won’t earn the expected return, or even worse, the investment will blow up in your face.

Probabilistic thinking

In my opinion, this is one of the most important mental models, if you aspire to improve your decision-making process.  When applying probabilistic thinking, one tries to assign reasonable probabilities to a set of future outcomes corresponding to all possible sets of actions. To deduct reliable probabilities you have to consider the base rates of the respective problem at hand. For example ask yourself: How did similar situations, regarding the conditions and opportunity set, play out in the past? Based on this, what is the most likely outcome going forward? Base your assessment only on facts and separate them from underlying narratives!
It is extremely hard if not impossible to assign fixed probabilities to specific outcomes. Therefore I try to tilt the odds in my favor.  When someone asks me if stocks or interest rates will move higher or lower in the future, I will answer “I don’t know! But based on the opportunity set at hand and historical base rates I assume x is more likely than y and therefore I’ll position my portfolio according to it”
If you are keen to learn more about probabilistic thinking, you will be delighted to watch the conversation with poker champion Annie Duke on making smart bets.

Laws of thermodynamics

The laws of thermodynamics provide numerous possibilities of connection to business and financial markets. The most practical one is the first law of thermodynamics which in its essence states, that the energy of an isolated system is constant and can neither be destroyed nor created.
This can be wonderfully transferred to investing, as Corey Hoffstein of Newfound Research put it Risk can not be destroyed only transformed”! For example, when you try to avoid a particular risk ( by hedging it) you introduce a new one (losing capital due to paying an option premium). This metaphor is particularly useful when evaluating risk/return tradeoffs. What kind of risk am I taking or avoiding at what cost? What am I losing or gaining in return?
You will gain more insights into the transformation of risk by listening to the conversation between Meb Faber and Corey Hoffstein.

The concept of leverage

Anyone in the financial community is familiar with the concept of leverage, nevertheless, I’d like to add this mental model to my list. A lever can be thought of as a device that increases the force applied to an object. To put it in more general terms,  a point of high leverage can be found, when small actions can make a huge difference in outcomes. One should focus on the problems where the inputs lead to the greatest results.
With respect to financial markets, leverage can increase good outcomes but reduces room for error when things go bad. It can make or break one’s existence and should be applied with caution. Leverage can be used explicitly via debt or implicitly via investment structure or derivatives. When evaluating investment strategies, it is crucial to understand the sources and uses of leverage.
Warren Buffett brilliantly describes the effects of leverage in this interview.

Regression to the mean

The mental model of regression to the mean can be found in nearly every aspect of our daily lives and its importance can not be overstated. In brief, the concept describes the occurrence of extreme outcomes which are followed by less extreme ones. For the effect to materialize, there need to be imperfect correlations between two objects which causes the true value of observations to oscillate around the mean. The higher the skew in the distribution of observations, the more pronounced is the regression to the mean after certain observations.
This concept is especially useful when analyzing market behavior or assessing the drivers of the success of investment strategies. Often we tend to assign outcomes to dedicated events when actually regression to the mean is at work. Take for example the evaluation of an asset manager’s performance during a due diligence process. Focusing to much on past performance, instead of the investment process, leaves you wide open for bad surprises, when returns regress towards their long-term expected values. The period of regression can be so long that it is hard to identify cause and effect relationships. Therefore you have to ask yourself: “Is the current observation caused by a comprehensible action or is it due to regression to the long-term mean?”
Watch this short explanation of the effect of regression to the mean in investing!

Conclusion

Mental models can be a usefull tool to aid your decision-making process, reduce complexity, and help you think more clearly. The broader the repertoire of models you acquire, the higher the number of opportunities you can create by connecting them. When using these models, it is critical to constantly question the underlying assumptions and examine whether they are applicable in the specific case. 
They always only can be seen as guiding posts! It is not the intention to blindly adhere to them.

Additional resources

On compounding knowledge

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family”.

-Kofi Annan-

 

I recently read Reid Hoffman’s insightful book “The Start-Up of You” wherein the path of one’s career is described similarly to building and running a start-up. Especially the concept of growing your professional skill set as well as building a deep professional network has resonated with me.

In the course of reading the book, one idea I had in my head for several months and has been discussed extensively in the financial blogosphere started to dawn on me again.

 

The concept of compounding knowledge…

Albert Einstein once called the concept of compounding the eighth wonder of the world. As a finance professional, I’m quite accustomed to the effects of compounding on financial assets, but only recently have I become aware of the importance of this effect on acquiring knowledge and applying it to practical problems.

To gain a better understanding of my train of thought, I’d like to start with a habit I’ve picked up over the last five years and further cultivated since working full time as a Portfolio Manager.

I set out my goal to accumulate as much knowledge as possible each day by listening to podcasts or reading books, blogs, and research papers.

On any given day I start my knowledge gathering activities when commuting to work by listening to my favorite podcasts on finance & economics, entrepreneurship or sociology.

After arriving at my workplace I dedicate the first one and a half-hour of my workday to a deep reading of research on various aggregators like Abnormal Returns or Quantocracy and a diverse set of other authors of financial research. (My all-time favorites are Aswath Damodaran, the Macro Tourist, and Epsilon Theory)

At first, I felt unproductive because reading general research didn’t contribute directly to getting rid of the daily workload. After a while, I noticed small changes in my way of dealing with new tasks especially when the objectives were unspecific.

Not exactly knowing where these changes came from, I was slightly confused. It seemed, that I subconsciously used my knowledge reservoir during the problem-solving process to view the tasks at hand from different angles and come up with fresh solutions. Not only seemed the rapid acquisition of knowledge to bear fruit, but the effect seemed to accelerate over time. The theoretical knowledge connected with my practical experience and created a feedback-loop that fed on itself.

This was the first time I experienced the compounding knowledge-effect first hand. Since then I upped my knowledge acquisition game and try to read as many books, listen to as many podcasts as I can and try to incorporate these ideas in my daily work.

I can’t encourage anyone enough to start compounding their knowledge and use it in their professional as well as personal lives. The rewards will be mindblowing!

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