The business card of Benjamin Tobias, CFP, PFS, CPA, CIMA, may resemble a Scrabble hand, but it pales in comparison with one he recalls.
"I saw a business card at one point with nine designations after the guy's name," he says. "It's great, but what does it mean?"
The boom in financial planning credentials has been driven by the growth of the independent-adviser market and because advisers want to distinguish themselves, says Dennis Gallant, director of intermediary research at Cerulli Associates Inc. in Boston, which is about to publish a study on the issue.
But some say the industry is verging on credential overkill, and that the current credential frenzy serves only to feed the wallets and egos of competing organizations.
"A lot of these organizations, which seem to be driven by money and profit, need to take a step back and reevaluate what is good for the consumer," says Nigel Taylor, a CFP and sole practitioner in Santa Monica, Calif.
"What is good for the consumer is to have one ascertainable standard as a minimum requirement for any person who would call themselves a comprehensive financial planner," he says.
Louis J. Garday, chief executive of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. in Denver, says his administration is examining a half dozen credential or licensing organizations with overlapping areas of study.
The board would endorse those organizations for training rather than create its own program, he says.
"It's an interesting idea, and we are examining it," he adds. "We are in the exploratory stage here."
The CFP Board's website lists 22 major financial services designations, such as accredited estate planner, chartered life underwriter certified investment management analyst and chartered mutual fund counselor.
Advisers also carry myriad designations not mentioned, such as certified divorce planner, certified senior adviser, certified elder planning specialist and perhaps the newest addition, the certified college planning specialist, launched in April.
"We do not speak evil of other credentials; it's a game you don't want to start. But the CFP credential is the one most recognized by the public. It's a very valuable skill set," says Mr. Garday.
Anybody doing comprehensive financial planning needs no other credentials but the CFP designation, he adds.
"I would say the credentials that mean something in this area are really darn few, and seldom do we see any junk certification behind that [CFP mark]," Mr. Garday says.
"We see JD, CFP. We'll see CPA, CFP. We'll see CFP, CFA. But in terms of just business cards, I could look through my stack on my desk and I would tell you've I've never seen a business card that says CFP comma certified divorce specialist. I've never seen one for certified college planner.
The "junk certification" comment perplexes Jeffrey Clark, chief operating officer at Savingforcollege.com in Pittsford, N.Y., who is also on the advisory council of the National Institute of Certified College Planners in Plentywood, Mont.
The CFP Board has granted 16 continuing-education credit hours for planners who complete his group's three-exam self-study course.
"Unless the CFP Board is in the habit of awarding continuing-education credit hours to programs that they classify as junk, it seems as though there's a little bit of a disconnect there," says Mr. Clark.
Fadi Baradihi, president and CEO of The Institute for Certified Divorce Planners LLC in Southfield, Mich., says there are 800 CDP designees, a good number of them CFPs.
"It seems someone would take the time to find out what something is all about before they judge it," says Mr. Baradihi, himself a CFP, CDP, CLU and ChFC.
Asked if too many designations tend to confuse clients, Mr. Baradihi says: "I've been in the business for 12 years. I don't think a client has ever asked me what are all these things. They usually look at them and say, `Wow, you must be pretty qualified."'
A Cerulli survey of more than 400 advisers for an upcoming report titled "Financial Planning: The Delivery of Advice and Guidance" found that 88.3% hold multiple designations.
Among the most frequent are CFP, ChFC, chartered leadership fellow, registered health underwriter, registered employee benefit consultant and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' personal financial specialist designation.
For the industry, CFP has become the gold standard for financial planners even though it's held by nowhere near a majority of those who sell securities or dispense investment advice.
According to Cerulli, about 15% of the 300,000 Series 7 holders and registered investment advisers hold the certification.
But in a survey earlier this year, the CFP Board found that 57% of consumers were aware of the CFP mark and what's behind it, says Mr. Garday.
He adds, however, that 49% said that when choosing a financial planners it's difficult to know who's truly qualified because of the proliferation of licenses.
Mr. Tobias, president of Tobias Financial Advisors in Plantation, Fla., wishes the CFP Board offered specialized designations so he could simplify his title for clients.
"If there was something by the CFP Board that said `certified financial planner specializing in taxes or specializing in investments,' I think that would be the greatest way to go," adds Mr. Tobias, whose firm has $50 million under management. "Lawyers have it, doctors have it, why can't we have it?"
Mr. Taylor says the CFP mark should be the only designation.
"Everything else should be just a certificate you hang on the wall to say, `Look, I did this continuing education,' but I don't think they should be designations, and I don't think we should be continually creating an alphabet soup of letters behind our names," he says.
Hearing calls like Mr. Tobias' from some of its 40,000-strong membership, the CFP board is considering formal reciprocal agreements with other certifying bodies that it would recommend for specialized training.
Should the CFP Board choose to recommend other credentials or licenses, it could include co-branding efforts and credit for course work, says Mr. Garday.
"The certificants are saying, `I'd like more expertise in specific areas,' and that's a good thing," says Mr. Garday.
"Now whether we do the specialization as part of the CFP certificate or whether we turn to partners who do these specialized areas, perhaps better than we do, is something that we're examining."
One possible partner may be the sponsors of the certified employee benefit specialist designation used by human resources professionals, Mr. Garday says, while declining to name other prospects.
"We are talking to the CEBS folks, recognizing that many of our core elements and educational courses, etc., that we require for CFP certification are also required for their CEBS," he says. "Rather than us trying to reinvent the wheel, we will recommend that you get a CEBS certificate and go though their courses."
The CEBS designation is co-sponsored by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in Brookfield, Wis., and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.