Preparing for a job in finance involves much more than learning the kinds of things that show up on a CFA exam. Knowing the time value of money, option decay, internal rates of return, and stuff like that is helpful, but ultimately finance is a hypersegmented and compartmentalized profession where different skill sets and temperaments are utilized to make the whole machine work. And a lot of newcomers to the industry are often surprised at just how different and irrelevant the skills of one finance job are to another.
To demonstrate just how different these positions can be, let’s do a quick and anatomy of a basic hedge fund. Let’s imagine a very small fund that has just raised enough capital to make the structure economical (that usually means $100 million in AUM). What kind of people will the fund need to employ?
There will need to be a compliance officer and a lawyer, both of whom have more of a legal background than a finance one. Also, these two roles can be outsourced to freelancers or outside firms, and in small funds they usually are.
Then there will need to be an accountant and/or auditor to ensure funds brought in by external investors are invested appropriately and there’s a record of who owns what. This is usually an internal position, but doesn’t need to be; it is also the job of someone with an accounting background more than a financial one.
Then you will need the team who actually do the investing and tracking of the investments. This, at its most basic, involves three roles—all of which are very different from each other.
First, you will have the portfolio manager. This is the person who will collect investment ideas and decide, based on an assessment of risk and reward, what percentage of AUM to put into each idea. This involves a skillset focused on statistics, quantitative analysis, and macroeconomic literacy. This is a person who understands how changes in foreign currency exchange rates impacts trade flows as well as how to calculate the standard deviation of an asset’s price change over a fixed period of time.
Then you have the analyst. This person is the most Warren Buffett-like, and perhaps the most familiar to the casual investor. The analyst will do the due diligence and close analysis of companies’ balance sheets, income statements, and so on. The skills involved here are a mixture of the traditional financial knowledge that makes up the bulk of the CFA exams as well as a bit of due diligence acumen—knowing how to find expert opinions and how to listen to them. The skillset here is a mix of qualitative and quantitative abilities, with the former being hard to quantify and almost never taught in financial schools.
Finally, there is the trader. The trader is the person who actually executes the buy/sell strategies that the analyst and P.M. put together as a team. The trader typically doesn’t care about the complexities of balance sheets, doesn’t engage in due diligence, and doesn’t read the newspapers for the latest macro trends. the trader is a chartist—someone who uses technical analysis to discover prices that are optimal for the fund’s trading strategy.
As you can see from this quick overview, the skills of each financial position are quite different from each other—and all are quite different still from the skills of financiers in investment banks and other parts of the large world of finance. Often budding financiers find themselves stuck in one part of finance, dissatisfied and frustrated. In some cases, that just means they haven’t found the niche that works for them.