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Choosing an Investment Professional

3 Things to Know About Financial Designations

Pete Chandler
Alphabet Soup

You made a decision to work with a financial professional and have started to interview prospective candidates. As you're comparison shopping you notice that some candidates have a string of letters after their name. Chances are that alphabet soup refers to one or more professional designations. Here are three things it pays to know about financial designations.

While designations often
imply special training or
experience of some extent,
they can also be used as a
marketing or self-promotional

(Looking for more information on finding a financial professional? Don't miss these six tips to help you find, and successfully work with, an investment pro.)

There is a difference between being registered or licensed and holding a professional designation. The ability to provide financial advice and conduct sales activities in the securities and insurance industries requires registration with a regulatory body. For example, brokers must be registered with FINRA, a state securities regulator or both. The SEC regulates investment advisers who manage $110 million or more in client assets, while state securities regulators have jurisdiction over advisers who manage up to $100 million. Advisers with less than $100 million in assets under management (AUM) must register with the state regulator for the state where the adviser has its principal place of business. When a state-registered adviser’s AUM reach the $100 million threshold, the adviser may elect to register with the SEC—but when the adviser’s AUM exceeds $110 million, it generally must register with the SEC. You can check out whether a broker or adviser is registered by going to FINRA BrokerCheck.

On the other hand, professional designations are generally administered by an issuing organization that determines the criteria needed to earn the designation. This brings us to the second thing you should know.

All financial designations are not created equal. Some involve fairly rigorous standards to earn and maintain the designation, allow investors to verify the status of anyone claiming to hold that designation and a few even have a formal disciplinary process. Others are relatively easy to earn and might be maintained by simply paying a yearly fee.

You can find out what it takes to earn and maintain a financial designation by using FINRA's Professional Designations tool. Keep in mind that while designations often imply a degree of special training or experience of some extent, they can also be used as a marketing or self-promotional hook. Be wary of financial professionals who make too much of their designation, or try to tout their designation as the reason you should hire them. A professional designation should never be the sole reason you select an investment professional.

Designations can be faked. Sadly, like any credential, a financial designation can be used fraudulently. Fraudsters often try to build credibility and gain trust by claiming to be an expert or have a special designation—a tactic known as source credibility.

But remember—credibility can be faked. Many organizations that issue financial designations provide the public with a database of those who hold an up-to-date designation (you can find web links to conduct such a search using the previously mentioned Professional Designations tool). It's a good policy to ask anyone who claims to hold a designation when they earned it and whether it's still current—and then, if possible, verify with the issuing organization that this is truly the case.

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