More commercial bankers want what many portfolio managers and securities analysts already have: the letters CFA after their name.

Designation as a chartered financial analyst is increasingly important for many bank employees as the institutions they work for become full- service financial centers, offering everything from derivatives trading to stock brokerage.

About 13% of the 39,341 people who enrolled in the CFA exam in May of this year worked for a commercial bank or a thrift, according to the Association for Investment Management and Research, or AIMR. The Charlottesville, Va.-based organization, which has been giving the test since 1963 in order to insure professional standards among traders and brokers, expects as many as 46,800 people to sit for the exam in 1998, 16% of them bankers, experts say.

"People gravitate to the CFA designation because it stands for higher ethical values, and the curriculum is an excellent training ground," said Thomas A. Bowman, AIMR president.

But bankers themselves have much more practical reasons for taking the grueling six-hour exams.

For example, Wells Fargo & Co. offers salary "kickers" when CFA candidates pass a level of the exam. (There are three levels altogether.)

"Since the exams, my salary has increased a good amount," said Eric Evans, a vice president and portfolio manager at Wells Fargo Bank in Newport Beach, Calif.

Mr. Evans began preparing for the exams when he was a trust administrative assistant at the Newport Beach bank and wanted to move to the investment side.

"The preparation for this all-encompassing charter gave me the background for the actual daily work load of a portfolio manager," he acknowledged.

The CFA designation has also improved his confidence and helped his credibility with new clients, he said.

But preparing for the test was intense. Mr. Evans, who has a Bachelor of Business Administration in finance from the University of Iowa, said he began studying for Level I in April, two months before the test. He studied a few nights a week, and every weekend.

Compared to the CFA exam, the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, was a walk in the park, Mr. Evans said. The CFA exam "was brutal; there's no way around it."

For the next exam-Level II-he started preparing even earlier, four months before the test. But he failed in his first attempt.

Mr. Evans finally passed the last two levels in successive years. His advice to future CFAs: start studying as soon as the CFA curriculum has been set-in the fall of the previous year.

"The studying helped me prepare, but the exams were like getting hit by a truck," Mr. Evans said.

The pass rate for Level I generally falls between 48% and 62%, according to the AIMR. For Level II, the pass rate is 46% to 74%, and Level III, from 71% to 82%.

Although the pass rate has been low, candidates continue to enroll. But it isn't because the AIMR is involved in any heavy marketing campaigns. The exams are advertised primarily by word-of-mouth and in a few trade journals.

Created by the 1990 merger of the Financial Analysts Federation and the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts, the AIMR said that interest in the exams has nearly quadrupled during the last seven years, from 11,000 test takers to 40,000.

Today there are over 20,000 CFA charterholders worldwide who uphold the program's professional, educational, and ethical standards, Mr. Bowman said.

J. Clay Singleton, senior vice president at the AIMR and head of the CFA program, said that preparing for the CFA exam involves absorbing a stack of reading material about 24 inches tall. The curriculum includes assigned financial textbooks and trade journals, and is the equivalent of a full semester of college for each exam. The exams are broken up into two three- hour sessions with an hour-and-a-half break.

Mr. Singleton said enrollment for the CFA exam, including a one-time registration fee, costs $600. Level II and Level III exams cost $250 each. Candidates must have four years at a university or college in order to register for the first test, and should have some finance experience or interest.

"We don't offer study courses, but we do encourage people to take those courses offered by local analyst groups and by those who teach test-taking for the LSATs, MCATs, and GREs," Mr. Singleton said.

This fall, the New York Institute of Finance in Manhattan has a $100 one-session orientation course for prospective CFA candidates. In October it will offer eight two-and-a-half-hour sessions on the CFA Level I exam; tuition is $475.

Preparing and taking the CFA exam has been an important career decision for many, and bankers agree it's worth every penny invested.

Mary Cameron Crump was an equity trader and research analyst for seven years with North Carolina Trust Co. in Greensboro.

Reading old CFA exams almost nine months before the exams, Ms. Crump said she couldn't afford to fail and take the test again. "When everyone at work knows you're taking it, you fear embarrassment," she said.

Ms. Crump had a psychology degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was uncertain whether to pursue graduate school and a Ph.D. in psychology or the CFA charter. She passed the CFA's first level in 1991, gave birth to her daughter Meredith in 1993, and then passed the last two levels in 1995 and 1996.

"I'm totally committed now," said Ms. Crump. "The CFA charter really is a far more required, preferred, and value-added designation, especially as a working mother."

Her husband, G. Michael Crump, a portfolio manager with NationsBank Corp. in Greensboro, is also working for a CFA designation. An investment banker for 11 years, Mr. Crump just passed Level II in May.

"It's starting to catch on, and financial service companies are realizing what a CFA charter can bring to the table," said Mr. Crump. "It's the equivalent of a Ph.D. in finance."

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