Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Figure it out, people!

Far too many license exam candidates labor under a misconception about the exams; they think they are supposed to know the answer as soon as they read the question. Unfortunately, for most questions, your job is to FIGURE IT OUT. For example, take a look at the following:

Parents often use zero coupon bonds such as Treasury STRIPS to fund future educational needs. Which of the following is an inaccurate statement of such investments?
A. they lock in a rate of return for the life of the bonds
B. taxation is deferred until maturity
C. their market price volatility is higher compared to interest-paying debt securities
D. they require lower capital commitments

Maybe you already know the answer, but your approach should be to take each choice and try to eliminate it--the choice you can't eliminate must be your answer. Also, it helps to remember that you're eliminating the three TRUE statements in this one. Right? Ok, so do zero coupon bonds lock in a rate of return for the life of the bond? Don't try to picture an imaginary flash card here--ask yourself how zero coupons work. Why are they called "zero coupon" bonds in the first place? Because they make exactly zero coupon payments--therefore, the investor does not reinvest coupon payments at varying rates along the way (reinvestment risk), so I guess the return is "locked in for the life of the bonds." See how much thought it can take to eliminate just one answer choice? Good--two more need to be eliminated, and then we're done. Taxation is deferred until maturity--is that true? Many people have memorized this, but even if so, don't choose this answer yet. Not until you eliminate the other two. Put this one on hold--it looks good, but maybe one of the other choices looks even gooder. What about the "market price volatility," does that make sense? Well, if you remember all that we've said about "duration" and how zero coupons have high "durations," you know it's true. If you don't remember it, figure it out--why would their price be volatile? Probably because there's no cash flow being paid to make the investor feel better about holding the thing. That's true, so we eliminate it, and we sit 50-50 at this point. Either B or D is going to be our answer--getting tired and frustrated? Suck it up, people--you have over 100 questions to answer whether taking the Series 65 or 66. Okay, Choice D says that zero coupon bonds somehow "require lower capital commitments." And here is where we separate those who will pass the first time and those who might pass on their second or third attempt. The candidates who get frustrated now and start preparing their snarky email to Kaplan, STC, or Pass the Test, want to start squirming like a little kid all dressed up for a 3-hour church service on a hot Sunday in August--no fair! I don't remember ever seeing that before! Is this test testing my knowledge or my ability to take a test?
Yes, and yes--the clock is ticking; what is your answer?
Take a deep breath and t-h-i-n-k about it. Why would the zero coupon require a lower capital commitment? Well, how are they purchased? At a deep discount to the par value--aha! If you can buy $100,000 par value of STRIPS for just $50,000 or $60,000, I'd say that represents a "lower capital commitment," whether I've ever thought of it that way or not. Choice D is eliminated, along with Choice A and Choice C. What's the right answer?
I just told you. It's not A, C, or D.

If I seem to be getting a little edgier, it's because 2010 represents a whole new reality, what with the 72% required passing score for the Series 65 and the even scarier 75% passing score for the Series 66. I can't afford to be nice at every turn this year. My job is to scare exam candidates sufficiently to take this stuff seriously and start thinking through exam questions as opposed to expecting to have them memorized as you used to do in high school and blow-off college courses.

Frankly, the harsh, cold January weather here in Chicago is making my job a little easier.


  1. Hello again.
    Before I ask another question, I just want to let you know that I do read your entries. I apologize if my questions are unrelated to your posts. Your entries are helpful! I think this post is good reminder not only to Series 65/66 exams but for all exams. I remember underestimating the Series 7 the first time I took it.
    Anyways, I'm searching for jobs. You mentioned before that if I didn't want to cold call, there's a position as a trader for IAs. Are those positions just called traders?
    I've been just going to the companies' websites and applying through their Careers section. Is there a more effective website/process?

    Again, thank you for everything.

  2. Hi, Daniel
    Yes, the big advisers would have a group of "traders" working the "trading desk." My former girlfriend worked at Ariel, and I had a talk with one of the "traders" one evening when she gave her a ride home. I think she was in a group of about 5 - 10 traders, and Ariel is a small money manager. When you get a Series 7, you can use it to help manage clients (people person) or to execute trades (heads-down working person). Keep doing what you're doing, but I would become much more pushy and show up at the adviser's office. No openings now? Fine--but your business will eventually pick up, right, and I'd like to be a part of that. Here is my resume. Don't let some receptionist deter you from getting a good job.

  3. So, you're saying I just stop by the company? Interesting. I may have to do that.
    I'm applying to a couple of trading positions. I'm seeing that there are almost no "entry-level" positions. Most of them require 5-10 years of experience, which I don't have.
    Right now, I'm just doing job searches on sites like Monster, Indeed, etc.
    Honestly, I have no idea if I'll get a response, but it's worth a try.

  4. The people with 5-10 years' experience were hired when they had no experience, too. I think you might be a little too polite by nature. Throw some elbows out there. "Wall Street" is a very rude place where the rudest and most arrogant rise to the top. I would pick a few good advisers and stop by. Get into somebody's office, even if it's just to ask a few questions.

  5. Bob - re: page 11 of the manual and other places - how the heck do I just memorize things like leading, coincident, lagging indicators, formulas etc. I'm 65 yr old, taking the Series 65 and its even harder than it was to do it before. thanks - bob

  6. You're pointing out the inherent absurdity of the exam. Due to the shallow-but-wide scope of the exam, you have to memorize all those indicators just in case 1 or 2 questions come up. The whole Uniform Prudent Investor Act will be "tested" by seeing if you read and can recall one key phrase or concept. Our job is even tougher--we have to make judgment calls on which trivia to present and which to keep off your plate. Luckily, I've taken the test enough to know that you WILL have to knows those darned economic indicators--for 1 or 2 questions.