Financial Designations

Finding the right financial adviser can be a daunting task, given the sea of insurance agents, commissioned brokers and fee-based money managers who are out there competing for your business.

Financial designations — the alphabet soup that some advisers append to their names — can help narrow the field a bit. But it’s important to know what the most common designations mean, and what they don’t mean, before you base any part of your decision on them.

For starters, it’s important to realize that no single entity has a lock on conferring the seal of quality on financial advice. The International Association of Registered Financial Consultants counted at least 89 designations, certifications and degrees that were available in the financial industry, provided by 87 different financial services organizations and institutions.

At the very least, most financial designations indicate that an adviser has practiced their professional trade for a minimum number of years, and that they have attained some measure of education beyond the level they needed to pass the National Association of Securities Dealers’ Series 7 exam, which is the minimum baseline requirement for licensing in the securities industry.

Some designations require their applicants to invest hundreds of hours to attain a broad-based education in the financial fields. Others are more narrowly focused, or require far less work to attain.

Here’s a look at some of the most common designations in the retail securities and financial advisory fields, along with their acronyms:

Certified Financial Planner (CFP): Awarded by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. Available to advisers with three years of experience and a bachelor’s degree, or five years of experience with no college. Requires passage of a fairly demanding and broad-based exam, along with 30 hours of additional coursework every two years.

Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC): Issued by The American College, an accreditation and education institution for the financial services industry. Requires 75 hours of coursework and passage of an exam covering issues such as estates, taxes, portfolio management and financial planning. Can take years to obtain; most commonly held by people in the insurance industry.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA): Awarded by each state’s board of accountancy. Generally requires passage of a rigorous exam demonstrating proficiency in tax and accounting issues and Continuing Professional Education, but doesn’t indicate any particular proficiency with financial planning or portfolio management. However, CPAs with some planning experience can go for a CFP or apply for a Personal Financial Specialist, or PFS, designation from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, if they pass an exam and earn recommendations from clients and colleagues.

Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA): A pair of exams, along with some on-site and independent study coursework, is required to get this designation from the International Management Consultants Association. Applicants need three years of experience and must show that they have no criminal history, regulatory violations, civil actions or formal customer complaints on their records.

Registered Financial Planner (RFP): No exam is required here from the Registered Financial Planners Institute, but applicants must have two years of experience, complete 120 hours of coursework and agree to adhere to a code of ethics.