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CFA FSA Level 1 Tips: 5 Actionable Strategies to Nail Your Exam


CFA FSA (CFA Financial Statement Analysis), also known as “FSA,” is one of the most heavily weighted sections in CFA Level 1 and Level 2 exams, representing 11-14% and 10-15% of the total syllabus, respectively. (Level 3 doesn’t cover FSA.)

What’s more, CFA Level 1 covers all aspects of basic financial accounting. For those who are not accounting majors or are not exposed to accounting at work, this section of the CFA exam could be pretty tough.

Why CFA FSA is a Beast for Many Candidates

1. The CFA Exam is LONG

One of the biggest challenges for the FSA questions is the sheer volume of materials. For candidates who are familiar with accounting concepts, it is not only long but terribly boring. One can easily get bogged down, spend too long there, and still not get the big picture.

2. The CFA Exam Has LOTS of Principles to Memorize

Unlike many other topics (e.g., Quant, Portfolio Management, Fixed Income, Derivatives), you can’t simply learn a few basic principles about FSA and be able to derive the rest.  You have to memorize a lot of materials without one strong underlying theory to tie things together.

Some accounting can be reasoned from first principles, but a lot of it is sheer memorization. Accounting is a bunch of rules, and sometimes, they may not be the most logical.

3. The CFA Exam Questions Take Time to Practice

Some people pick up the material very quickly, but for most of us, it takes time to understand the flow of the financial statement items. It took me a couple of actual work experiences to finally internalize the whole thing.

It’s not like the concepts are complex, but there are so many pieces that when one piece moves, it affects the others. It can get pretty overwhelming.

CFA FSA Level 1 Study Sessions

When you are studying for the FSA material for the CFA Level 1 exam, you’ll find four study sessions covering 500 pages:

  • SS7: Introduction of financial statements and the related standard
  • SS8: The 3 financial statements — income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statements, and analysis techniques
  • SS9: Inventories, long-lived assets, income taxes, and non-current liabilities
  • SS10: Examples on how to assess financial reporting quality and further coverage on financial statement analysis

Our CFA Level 1 FSA Tips

1. Start Early

I know this is a repetitive theme across different sections, but this is key to mastering the FSA qurstions. It is THE longest subject area on the CFA exam!

For those who are not familiar with accounting, many find income tax and long-term assets among the toughest sections. You may want to allocate extra time to those.

2. Master How the 3 Financial Statements Relate to Each Other

The early FSA SS are introductory accounting concepts that lay the foundation for all of FSA at L1 and L2.  You should have these topics down cold if you expect to succeed in the rest of FSA.

FSA (and accounting in general) becomes much easier once you know the structure of a balance sheet, income statement, and statement of cash flow, together with the basic interactions among them.

Specifically, create your own simple financial model with the 3 statements (B/S, I/S, and CF) based on a simple industry. This generally means a service industry with no inventory, cost of goods sold, etc.

Then, study in detail which accounting items reside in respective statements and how they connect to each other.

If you can build this from scratch, the pesky “what increases and then decreases” questions will become second nature on exam day and translate into easy points.

Once you are fine with this simple model, build a slightly complicated one that involves manufacturing. It will take time to figure out the flow, but it’s worth the time.

3. Don’t Skip Around

Don’t try to skip any parts in FSA because it comes back again (in more detail) in Level 2.

Once you get the fundamentals down, it is much better to go through FSA. You can now get to the specifics, item by item, to master them all, one practice question at a time.

If you get a wrong question, drill down into the explanation and review it until you understand it.

4. Accounting Majors: Don’t Underestimate this Section

The financial accounting courses you took are mostly from an accountant or auditor’s perspective. When taking the CFA exam, however, a candidate should look at things from an analyst’s perspective.

Level 1 is likely easier for accountants and CPAs because it deals with basic financial accounting. In Level 2, instead of knowing how the debit and credit work, one needs to read the financial statements and know how they impact the company’s future prospects.

5. See This as Value Add to Your Career, Not just for the CFA Exam

Understanding financial accounting is a fundamental skill for financial analysts. Some analysts can get away with it and get promoted to manager level without knowing how debit and credit work. These people, however, are never technically comfortable and confident because this massive sinkhole was never been filled and fixed.

You don’t want to be one of them, so you should really take this opportunity to figure out financial accounting once and for all.

Study Tips for CFA Level 2 FSA

In Level 2, FSA has a weight of 10-15%. If there are 3 item sets, they are most likely from pension, MNO, and ICI with FRA techniques, according to my readers’ consensus. If there are four item sets, there is a decent likelihood that the 4th is a combination of inventory and long-lived assets.

Level 2 is Easier to Handle…

If you prepare well for the FSA questions in Level 1, you may find the Level 2 materials easier to digest.

In Level 1, so much is thrown at you that you aren’t sure how to process it all… what to memorize, what to know cold, what to get a general idea.

In Level 2, one usually has an idea of which segments are important and what types of questions one might expect.

… But Not Necessarily Easier

Having said that, being easier to handle doesn’t mean the study material itself is easier.

Accounting by itself is not very difficult, but pensions, inter-corporate investments, and multinational operations are more complex than inventory or depreciation, especially when you have to apply them to different readings during the test.

Important Concepts in CFA Level 2

1. Pension Accounting

Many find pension accounting to be the toughest topic in CFA FSA Level 2. Make sure that you understand the difference between treatments of items that go to I/S and OCI. You can find a good summary table in the CFAI text book.

2. Multinational Accounting

You should know the difference between the current rate method and the temporal method. If you (unfortunately) get a question on temporal rate, make sure you know the difference between monetary and non-monetary assets and liabilities.

3. Inter-corporate Investment

The Level 1 exam has some coverage on inter-corporate investments, but you should learn the (new) equity and acquisition method very well and work on lots of practice questions.

4. Financial Reporting and Analysis Techniques

On the CFA exam, you’ll find questions on ratios with a little more depth on issues like accrual-based accounting. Make sure you know the calculation of ratios really, really well.

5. Inventory & Long-lived Assets

Regarding inventory and long-lived assets, the Level 2 questions basically repeat the Level 1 material with a bit more details and complexity.

CFA Review Course Recommendation

You may need extra help beyond the CFAI textbook to really nail the FSA questions. Therefore, the Kaplan Schweser’s examples and explanations are clear, and they tell you only what you need to know.

Readers’ Question

I want to study Quants before FRA. Is it ok?

FRA and Quants are not related at all; Quants are much more related to Corp. Finance, Equities, Fixed Income, Derivatives, and Portfolio management, so I would recommend studying Quants prior to those sessions. It does not matter to study Quants before FRA.

Tutorials for Your Reference

Here are more tips on these topic areas:

cfa financial reporting and analysis cfa fra cfa fra level 1 cfa level 1 fra tips topic-cfa-corporate-finance
topic-cfa-equity topic-fixed-income topic-cfa-derivatives topic-cfa-alt-investments topic-cfa-portfolio-management

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