An honest recollection of my CFA Research Experience - Siddhant Anthony Johannes

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    Siddhant Anthony currently works as a Financial Crimes Consultant for Ernst & Young. He was part of the five-member team which won the Asia-Pacific Championship of the CFA Research Challenge held in Malaysia, and became the first team from India to compete at the Global Finals which were held in London in 2013. The four other members of the team were Harris Aliyar, Sahitha Abdullah, Prateek Walia and Dawood Bukhari.

    We were sitting on brightly coloured Bloomberg stools, nervously going through our parts. Most of the people in the room had picked corners for themselves, where they presented animatedly to an imagined audience. A very amusing scene in the retrospective. We were up next and I was to start. Not a very comfortable place to be in. But such was the setting of the West Zone Finals for the CFA Research Competition. Which is where it all started.

    The best part about this experience is that it never really ended. Four years down the line, the CFA Research challenge experience continues to be a relevant learning curve for all of us.

    Before you make up your mind, a word of warning for all aspirants; this competition gets real scary. Even for the most seasoned aspirant. It is not just a test of how adept you are at presenting elaborate financial models or how well you understand valuation methods. It is a crucible of you as a professional and as an individual and it changes your world.

    Winning the zonal round was a sudden paradigm shift for us. From being worried about how to get in the daily dose of (desperate) class participation whilst half-awake, to being worried about how not to make a fool of yourself on live broadcasts. Oh and also about how to defend your “unconventional” stock recommendation against the very people who lead the investment world in India. In a span of 10 minutes.

    This brings me to our stock recommendation. After weeks of slogging on numerous iterations of our (many) valuation methods, we came up with a “Sell” recommendation on one of the top performing private banks in India. Many nervous practice sessions later, we convinced ourselves to present this brave on National television and to our judges’ panel; which included Sunil Singhania of Reliance Mutual Funds fame. Not a very easy position to defend, trust me (I’m sure I heard muted gasps when we said “Sell” and “HDFC Bank” during our presentation). But the risk paid off. And that is how we, along with the team from IIFT, won the National Finals.

    This is all very exhilarating, but you do have to go back to class the next day and complete all your long-since-ignored assignments. To add to that, there is more at stake as we were now representing India at the Asia Pacific level. But you learn, you learn how to manage your time, to prioritise and to live on very little sleep. Harris (our team lead and king supreme) used to come up with new methods of analysis each day and we would try and wrap our heads around it. We self-learned and performed even more analysis and fine-tuned our models even more.

    While detailed analysis was probably a good thing, it also meant that we needed to be able to convey double the information in the same 10 minute time span. This mandated a complete overhaul of our presentation design and our allocation of segments, which had to be timed to the second. Needless to say, this process involved many tears, hours and despairing sighs. To add to our worries, was the nightmare of daily stock price fluctuations of the bank in question, which had to be accounted for, before every presentation.

    All of this occurred in a span of a three to four months and as such the learning curve was steep. From struggling to figure out how to perform valuation for a bank to running Monte Carlo simulations with ease.

    The actual perks of the competition for me, began at this stage. In order to improve our presentation and analysis, the CFA institute arranged many in-depth sessions for us with leaders of top investment companies (read Reliance Mutual Funds, Ambit Capital and Fidelity). These sessions gave us a lot of exposure and insight into real-world implications of and expectations from investment pitches. But that’s not all, Ogilvy provided us with some last-minute polishing to boost our presentation skills. The cherry on the cake was that we also go to attend the annual investor presentation by HDFC Bank, in person!

    CFA Research Experience

    The Asia-Pacific finals in Malaysia-we land, go to one hotel room and study (yeah, you have to study-A LOT). Once we were settled in, there were many social events to attend. During the dinner event on the evening before the competition, we realise there is a semi-final round as well! We were all a collective bundle of nerves throughout the night. But, we make it to the finals. You really don’t get much time to practice as there are so many things to be done. Social events, photo-shoots, technical rehearsals are mandatory before we get to the real thing. But you really do learn how to focus amidst distractions. We finally get to present, get off to a fumbling start (courtesy me), but manage to more than make up and much to my surprise, win.

    Once back in India, we had to deal with domestic issues like attendance, assignments and final exams. But the weeks whizzed by and before we knew it, it was time to face the final challenge.

    London welcomed us with a lot of grey clouds and rain. Many social sessions later, braving the cold, we reached the venue. We were representing Asia Pacific amongst the four competing teams in the global finals. Thanks to the copious amounts of practice, our presentation was flawless this time. We lost out on the winning title by a tie-resolution method. But it was fun, nonetheless.

    I hope my multiple warnings and terrifying descriptions have given you a fair warning of the fate which will befall the CFA Research Competition participant. Now, if you still think the trials are worth the while (for the huge learning and the experience), then go for it by all means and give it your best. Cause, for me it was an experience of a lifetime. Also, it makes a brilliant “CV Point” ;)

    All the best.

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