An Intellectual Feast -Thoughts from the CFA Research Challenge

By Chengyu Li posted 03-21-2022 16:51


It’s been merely four weeks since 2022’s CFA Research Challenge Boston Final; the world seems to have changed drastically. Four weeks ago, the final round teams—Babson, Bentley, Brandeis, and Tufts—were unanimously pitching BUY on Akamai Technologies (AKAM), a Cambridge-based cloud company. Now (March 11), reading the incessant news about the Russia-Ukraine war and growth sell-off, I wonder if the teams would still pull the same pitch, or at least add a caveat: We stand by our recommendation only if the world is not falling apart. 

Yet, looking at AKAM’s stock price, $105 then vs. $110+ now, you would marvel at the students’ correct prediction. However much the news headline has shifted since mid-February, AKAM remains the same good company with great potential, as elaborated by the student teams. That’s the beauty of bottom-up stock research: laser focus on a company’s fundamentals. 

The students must be looking at AKAM’s price action in excitement: They got it right! I still remember fondly the months following my team’s Research Challenge Boston Final about ten years ago; I kept thinking: We got it right! The pleasure grew as much from seeing price moving in the predicted direction as from shaping insight ahead of the mass market. It was profoundly exhilarating! 

The students’ fervent pitch of their investment thesis was a reminder of the intellectual rigor that drew me to CFA in the first place. Hopping off the judge seat, thinking back to the days when I was on the student teams, I asked myself:


1, Start with a solid grasp of reality. My team pitched SELL on a technology company despite banks’ BUY ratings. We built the main thesis around the underlying technology facing major bottlenecks, plus the CEO having a reputation of being difficult. Neither thesis was mentioned in any sell-side reports then. We questioned whether we knew better than the street analysts. After extensive interviews with technologists, industry experts and company employees, we finalized our view on the company: thumbs down. 

2, Then soar above reality; imagine what the future holds. We spent many late nights debating the assumptions: revenue growth, cash-sapping acquisitions, irresponsible expenses, etc. Many late nights triangulating a target price were a process of quantifying our educated imaginations. 

3, The last step is to weave the pieces into a cohesive narrative. After the Boston Final, we learned that most teams had decided on a similar SELL—hats off to the power of unbiased due diligence and financial analysis! The score differential then boiled down to a) depth of research and b) persuasion of presentation.


The months leading up to the 20-minute stage time were exhausting. Yet, it was truly rewarding. CFA Research Challenge opened a door for me to the world of investing. We learned the craft of investment research, namely collecting, synthesizing, and summarizing intelligence. We now had a system to make sense of the world with clarity. 

But obtaining fishing rods doesn’t directly get fish on to the hook. Investment research is a craft one can only hope to perfect via practicing. The ever-changing ocean of finance is humbling. It takes tremendous practice and reflection to improve the system and develop a steady hand. 

In addition, because of the Research Challenge, I was introduced to CFA Boston (called “BSAS” back then). I became a student affiliate member, and I was offered access to the resourcefulness and kindness enabled by other finance professionals. Right after the competition, I managed to get two full-time job interviews at companies where some of the judges worked. From that first competition experience at Research Challenge, to later on getting my CFA Charter, to participating in various CFA Boston programs, I have been able to mature as an investing professional.  

The camaraderie among my dear team members continues until today. The many nights of rigorous debates and presentation rehearsals and the trip to Canada for Americas Final were all carved into our shared memory, the most precious reward thanks to the Research Challenge.


The room for the CFA Boston Research Challenge 2022 was nothing like the spacious auditorium where my team pitched to judges and many practitioners in the audience. This time, in the midst of the pandemic, the audience comprised only four of us judges plus a few CFA Boston colleagues, masked up. In this windowless meeting room with Zoom setup to accommodate whoever couldn’t show up in person, all student teams showcased convincing, reasonable analysis. Eventually, the Babson team stood out in both depth and cohesiveness in their presentation.  

The students’ untainted dedication to the exercise was infectious. The Research Challenge is probably the best forum to infuse critical thinking into a pitch where one doesn’t have to worry about how popular/unpopular the recommendation is—a real challenge that many professionals could face. The entire exercise was an intellectual feast to us judges too; it was an earnest reminder of the CFA’s value: “Professional excellence for the ultimate benefit of society.”