Finance major first URI junior to pass rigorous CFA exam

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 17, 2023 – Thomas Buckanavage got his first real taste of investing his senior year of high school, at the start of the pandemic.

He had always been around finance. His father, David, a 1980 graduate of the University of Rhode Island and member of the College of Business’ Executive Advisory Board, worked in a niche area of commercial real estate, raising state and federal tax credits for historic renovations, and had invested in the stock market.

So, Thomas figured he’d give it a try. He opened his first brokerage account at Fidelity with some birthday money his grandmother had given him, and started trading.

“I had no idea what I was doing, absolutely no idea,” said Thomas, of Dana Point, California. “I would watch CNBC and try and see what they were doing and then take their ideas and make them my own. I think people learn best by doing. But when you lose money, you have to sit back and say, ‘OK, what did I do wrong.’”

Four years later, Buckanavage, a senior in finance at URI, has learned those lessons well. In August, as a junior, he sat for the rigorous Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Level I exam and passed it on his first try. The CFA exam, offered internationally by the CFA Institute, is usually taken by working professionals, and has a passing rate of only 37 percent.

“This exam is very difficult even for seniors or graduates,” said Choonsik Lee, assistant professor of finance at URI who teaches the CFA prep course. “Previously, the CFA Institute didn’t even allow juniors to sit for the exam for this reason. However, with his dedication and effort, Thomas was able to take the exam after only three years of college. This is the very first time URI has had a junior student pass the CFA Level I exam.”

Going into the exam, Buckanavage was confident but knew the exam was a “super hard test to pass,” he said. “The way people describe it is it’s a whole undergraduate finance curriculum in one test.”

Preparation alone for the exam, which covers a wide range of topics, comes with six textbooks of about 4,000 pages of material to study. The recommended study time for the test is 300 hours. Buckanavage studied for about 400 hours for the exam, working and reworking the roughly 2,000 practice problems over and over. Given four and a half hours to complete the exam, he finished in about three, he said.

Buckanavage credits Lee and the URI prep course, which he took last spring, with providing him a study strategy. “The idea he instilled in us was practice, practice, practice. You can read 4,000 pages of material or you can get your hands on as many practice problems as possible,” Buckanavage said.

Passing the exam, he said, “opens up a lot more job opportunities. I am competing against a lot of kids from Harvard, Yale and other top schools. This helps validate me as a candidate for these jobs. It also allows me to shoot for the crème de la crème of job opportunities at big investment banks and top tier asset managers, the jobs that are really tied to capital markets, which is something I’m very fascinated in.”

Buckanavage said his fascination with finance comes from the knowledge that other people are making decisions that affect people’s lives every day. Only a small percentage of people, he said, understand that the decisions made on Wall Street impact everyone – from interest rates and gasoline prices to currency rates and the price of commodities, and more. “I want to have a say in that,” he added.

Buckanavage, who came to URI to pursue baseball in fall 2020, transferred his passion from the diamond to the finance arena after suffering a shoulder injury before his freshman year, which resulted in surgery. His interest in finance deepened the summer after his sophomore year when he landed an internship with the TCW Group, an asset management firm in Los Angeles. Each morning, he’d get up at 3 a.m. to make it to the office by 4:45 a.m., arriving before everyone else, for the opening of markets on the East Coast.

“Being on a trading desk and seeing how professionals monitor and sift through data taught me a lot,” he said. “I was able to carry that introduction to fixed income into my personal and spare time.”

His free time now is spent tracking the markets. Along with trading his own accounts and those of his father, brother and sister, he spends about 12 hours a day on the Bloomberg Terminal in the URI College of Business’ Sherman Trading Room, following financial markets and sifting through news items to determine what markets will be affected.

“When you read a news article, you have to know the 10 things that news is going to affect,” he said. “A simple one sentence headline can have rippling effects throughout the global markets. Being able to understand and determine the trends that might emerge is crucial.”

At URI, he’s one of the 15 students who manage the Ram Fund, a student-run investment fund that has an $800,000 equity portfolio. He is also a member of the College of Business’ Financial Management Association. Around Ballentine, he said, he’s known among professors as the “solicitor.”

“I just talk and talk about trades I’m doing, taking some of what we learned in class and what I’m learning in my free time and applying it to real life,” he said. “I thank the faculty, and especially finance professor Michael Ice, for always going out of their way to help me. Having that resource to bounce ideas off is critical when you’re learning.”

In the spring, he plans on taking the CFA Level II exam with a goal of passing it at the same time he graduates from URI. It will mean another 4,000 pages of new material. As he starts job hunting, Buckanavage said he is interested in working in active asset management.

“And definitely I would like to be in fixed income,” he said. “I think fixed income is fascinating. More specifically, I enjoy the intricacies of credit, especially navigating a capital structure in search of the highest risk adjusted return. Plus, I think it gives me a little bit of an advantage because most undergraduates don’t think bonds are super exciting. But when you can get 7%, 8% on fixed-income securities, that definitely rivals stock returns.”