USU Student Team Advances at Global Finance Competition, the 2021 CFA Institute Challenge

Ryan Voges knows a thing or two about hard work. He spent four years in active-duty military, serving in the U.S. Air Force, then dual-majored in finance and economics at Utah State University, and is now pursuing his Master of Science in Financial Economics (MSFE) at Utah State’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. He is one of the team of supremely dedicated students from USU who are moving on to the global regional competition (including North and South America) of the 2021 CFA Institute Challenge on April 15, after placing first in the state of Utah and then advancing at the sub-regional competition in the Western U.S. This places USU’s team among the top 15 nationwide and the top 45 globally for the CFA Institute Challenge this year.

Voges estimates that he and each of his other three teammates spent between 100-150 hours over the last semester preparing to compete in the CFA Institute Challenge, an elite global competition of more than 6,000 of the brightest and most dedicated finance students from more than 1,000 universities in 95 countries across the globe.

The time spent preparing for and competing in the Challenge since it began in October of 2020 has been “the equivalent of a part time job” and “a full-time affair for several long days and late nights,” said Jack Baldwin, who received a MSFE at USU Huntsman in December and participated in the competition while preparing to graduate, finishing his thesis and searching for full-time employment. He is now working as an Operations Analyst at financial services company Brex.

While some of Baldwin’s teammates lamented the inability to collaborate in person, he found the independent work and reliance on Zoom required by pandemic restrictions to be helpful with his incredibly busy schedule.

“I saved loads of time not having to drive up to campus every day this semester and actually got to see my wife who worked in Salt Lake during the semester,” said Baldwin.

Spencer Powell, who had already completed a bachelor’s and MBA at Utah Valley University, and who plans to graduate with a MSFE at USU Huntsman this semester said, “This competition has pushed me to work harder and learn more than I have previously in my academic career.”

While the time commitment and rigor required by the competition may seem extreme, “they know what they’re getting themselves into,” said Paul Fjeldsted, senior lecturer in the Department of Economics and Finance at USU Huntsman, and the faculty advisor for the Finance & Economics Club. “It’s a major commitment.”

“This type of student is one that is really looking for a challenge and is looking for a capstone experience at Utah State, so I like the fact that it pushes them in ways that they may not get pushed in the classroom,” said Fjeldsted.

The dedication and skill required to participate in this type of academic challenge, let alone advance, is impressive by any measurement and Utah State has set a precedent for winning at the CFA Institute Challenge. The university placed first at the state level for the past four consecutive years, and for the past two consecutive years, its teams took both first and second place at the state level.

“This competition was very challenging for me on a personal level because of the pressure related to continuing the USU winning streak,” said Jared Warnock, who plans to graduate from USU Huntsman this semester with a MSFE. “I didn’t believe my abilities were up to par with previous year’s team members.” His teammates later attributed part of the reason they have been able to advance this far to Warnock’s innovative financial models.

“Learning we had won was a huge weight off my shoulders and a real confidence booster,” Warnock said.

The CFA Institute Challenge requires each student team to conduct an in-depth analysis on a publicly traded company. The students produce a written research report on the company, along with a recommendation of whether to buy, hold or sell the stock. They take on the role of a real-world research analyst and must evaluate every aspect of the company: its industry, competitive position, management, risks, cashflows and environmental, social and government-related factors affecting the company. All this must be distilled into a 10-page report, which is submitted to the competition judges, followed by a concise and compelling verbal presentation. The teams are judged based on the thoroughness of the analysis and knowledge of the company.

While the students themselves did 100 percent of the work, they each attributed much of their success to the guidance and mentorship of their faculty advisors: Fjeldsted; Pedram Jahangiry, an assistant professor in the Economics and Finance Department at USU Huntsman; and TJ Bond, a professional practice professor in the Economics and Finance Department at USU Huntsman, who are each CFA charterholders; as well as alumnus Michael Hendricks, who also competed in the CFA Institute Challenge while he was a student at USU.

“USU faculty was willing to provide all the support we needed without ever giving us the answer,” said Warnock. “Rather than telling us what we should do or how we could improve our analysis, we were given feedback and pointed in the right direction.”

“I am continuously amazed at how much extra time some professors are willing to give,” said Baldwin. “I have no doubt that our advisors are not only some of the best that the business school has to offer but some of the best in the country.”

Whether or not they advance in the next round, Fjeldsted said he is incredibly proud of what the students have accomplished.

“I think we should all do more hard things – it makes us better people,” said Baldwin. “It doesn’t have to be the CFA Challenge of course, but it should be something equally difficult… I’m going to try harder things and I invite all Aggies to do likewise. We’ll be much more valuable to the world if we make it a habit.”

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