Is Your Adviser Pumping Up His Credentials?

According to the academy’s website, “If you have an accredited degree, license, or masters degree from a government recognized or accredited program or educational institution with a concentration in [Finance, Investments, Securities, Economics or Accounting], you may be immediately eligible for a Professional Designation.”

In the financial realm, many well-established credentials, including the certified public accountant, chartered financial analyst and certified financial planner designations, require long study, demand continuing education and enforce strict codes of ethics. In order to become a CPA, for example, one must pass a 14-hour CPA exam.

Many newer credentials, however, require comparatively little effort on the part of the students.

In recent years the number of financial credentials has soared. According to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which oversees how investments are marketed to the public, there are at least 95 different professional designations for financial advisers—nearly double the 48 it listed in 2005.

Alphabet Soup

See a list of some of the credentials available to financial-services professionals, including those tracked by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and others that are less well-documented.

The Wall Street Journal has found at least 115 others that aren’t tracked by Finra.

Many credentials sound confusingly similar. At least six identified by the Journal, for example, contain the word “senior”: certified senior adviser, certified senior consultant, certified senior specialist, certified senior financial planner, chartered senior financial planner and chartered adviser for senior living.

There aren’t any statistics tracking the number of advisers who carry various credentials, but many indicators suggest rapid growth. There were 61,847 certified financial planners (CFPs) in the U.S. as of Sept. 30, according to the CFP Board of Standards—a 70% rise from 10 years earlier. The American Academy of Financial Management, a group that offers 17 different designations, says it has more than 45,000 members all told, up from only a few hundred a decade ago.

The vast majority of financial-services professionals are honest and competent. And there is nothing inherently wrong with collecting credentials. But while some are rigorous, says John Gannon, head of investor education at Finra, “others you could probably get in a weekend.”

The certified retirement financial adviser, or CRFA, for example, sounds similar to the CFA designation. But the CFA requires roughly 900 hours of study in accounting, economics, ethics, finance and mathematics, and only 42% of candidates pass its three required exams, a process that can take several years.

The CRFA, by contrast, requires that students pass one exam consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions, for which 40 to 75 hours of preparation is typically sufficient preparation, says Lynda McColl, a spokeswoman for the Society of Certified Retirement Financial Advisors, which grants the CRFA designation.

One designation, the MFP, or master financial professional, is a “gateway credential,” says AAFM president George Mentz. It requires a graduate or undergraduate degree that includes five or more approved business courses and an AAFM certification course. But according to Mr. Mentz, those requirements can be waived for anyone with sufficient professional experience who is willing to make “certification, registration and initiation payments,” typically $300 or more. There is no exam to become an MFP.

For students, Mr. Mentz says, the double accreditation “would signal that you’ve completed a double accredited degree from one of the top schools in the world. It helps show that an individual is engaged in a higher code of conduct.”