April 4 (Reuters) - Steven Harp has run six marathons and is training for a punishing 140 mile swim-bike-run Ironman, but he says the most challenging thing he's done recently is try to get Certified Financial Planner accreditation.
The 32-year old adviser with Northwestern Mutual sat for the CFP exam March 22, along with about 1,570 others. All hope that adding the initials CFP to their business cards will indicate expertise, credibility, and help build their businesses.
"It's the most rigorous examination process I've ever been through," Harp said. After 230 hours of study, just shy of the 250 hours the CFP Board of Standards recommends, he is still waiting to hear whether he passed. Last year only 63 percent of those who sat for the 10-hour exam passed. To do so, they have to demonstrate expertise on everything from the tax code to Social Security benefits and estate planning.
In addition to the exam, candidates for certification also must complete financial planning coursework, have three years of experience, and pass a background check.
Every hour of study was an hour Harp did not spent working in his shared $50 million practice, which he is trying to build by $2 or $3 million a quarter. "Every hour I'm out of work," Harp said, "I'm not making money. That's unnerving."
Is the effort worth it? The CFP Board is spending about $10 million in marketing this year making that case to advisers and clients. It cites a sponsored study from consulting firm Aite Group that found brokerage teams that included a CFP holder generated 30 percent more revenue than teams without. Individual practitioners with certification did even better, producing 40 percent to 100 percent more than brokers without.
While they do not require advisers to get a CFP, Bank of America Corp.'s Merrill Lynch and Raymond James Financial Inc have incorporated the CFP education component into their new advisers programs, said Joe Maugeri, director of firm relations at the CFP board.
But some firms are less keen on CFP training, saying a link between certification and an adviser's bottom line is not proven.
"Some firms don't tie the ability to provide financial advice to a designation," Maugeri said.
Maugeri cited "an ongoing problem - the proliferation of designations out there." There are more than 15 different certifications that financial planners use, including Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA), Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) and Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU).
Currently, there are 69,500 active CFPs - only about 20 percent of financial advisers have the certification.
SOME CLIENTS ARE CALLING
The CFP Board's public relations push may be helping some advisers such as Marguerita Cheng, a 10-year CFP from Bethesda, Maryland, who have held the mark for years. In November 2013, she broke away from Ameriprise to form her own firm, Blue Ocean Global Wealth, and recently she has fielded one or two inquiries a month from potential clients who find her on the CFP Board's "Let's Make a Plan" website.
Cheng and Harp both say that going through the CFP training helped them to become better at their jobs, aside from its use as a marketing device."It gave me the knowledge, the credibility and ability to be able to think about all the moving parts in one financial life. That is definitely beneficial," said Cheng.
Harp says the process provided a roadmap for client communication, including explaining how he is paid, and asking about all relevant aspects of a client's finances. He said he has more confidence about what conversations with clients should include.
" I was doing those things before, but it wasn't well formatted," he said. The CFP education "really lays it out in a straightforward way."
DOES A CFP MEAN TMI?
Not everyone thinks the soup-to-nuts comprehensive training required for a CFP makes sense. Tom Sedoric, with the Sedoric Group of Wells Fargo Advisors, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has been in the business for 30 years and never did get the certification or all that expertise.
"I don't know anything about estate planning, and I don't know everything about the tax code, but I know where to find a resource," Sedoric said. Instead of studying all those areas himself, he instead built a network of experts he and his clients could call in for those kinds of questions.
"To assume that I'm going to know everything about financial planning is unrealistic," he said.
Nonetheless, Sedoric concedes that the business is changing. He's just hired a new planner for his firm, and yes, that newbie is working toward a CFP. (editing by Linda Stern and David Gregorio)