Shavers, Sharks and Payday Lenders

Westerners have long harbored a love-hate relationship with lenders, and their ambivalence shows no sign of abating anytime soon. What has changed over time is the perception of what constitutes “bad” types of lenders or loans. In various times and places, it was illegal/immoral to charge any interest at all, to exact interest from kinsfolk, to charge rates considered too high or to use violent collection methods. Today, it is lawful, and even somewhat morally acceptable, to charge any rate of interest to anybody willing to pay it. Reformers, however, want to protect borrowers from being cajoled, forced or tricked into borrowing at high rates for long periods.

The King James version of Exodus (22:25) states that “If thou lend money to my people poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as a usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” Usury here is usually taken to mean taking any interest whatsoever, though at least one recent translation reads instead: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.” If the traditional interpretation is correct, perhaps early Jews lamented lost profit opportunities because Deuteronomy (23:19–20) clearly allows some lending at interest: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.”

Stranger is usually taken to mean a nonIsraelite or non-Jew, which was the general interpretation when Shakespeare penned The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. The former featured an anti-Semitic caricature of an avaricious moneylender while the latter contained the most infamous anti-financial line of all time: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens warned that even a small annual budget deficit could lead to ruin: “Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Clearly, the Western world has had a long and complex relationship with debt.

By the 18th century, charging/paying interest was a quotidian activity in most of Europe and America. Benjamin Franklin, writing as Poor Richard, tried to persuade readers that “the borrower is a slave to the lender,” but what early Americans deprecated was exacting excessive interest, or “usury” in the modern sense of charging unlawfully high interest rates. That sentiment was perhaps best expressed by South Dakota banker Porter P. Peck. The first lenders on the frontier had very bad reputations, he explained, because they were “the genuine old money shark who went on with the first axman or prairie schooner.” They did no good except to “pave the way for the more liberal class who followed. This latter class came on and charged only 5% a month for money. They were, of course, much better thought of, and the pioneers voted to let them remain on sufferance.”

In other words, lending/borrowing was acceptable in America only if rates were not too high, a line that varied dramatically over time and place depending on the level of economic development (higher in less developed areas) and financial development (lower in more developed systems) and the type of monetary system (higher under inflation-prone fiat regimes).

Regardless of the location of the “too much” line, lenders willing to lend at usurious rates could always be found, although not until recently in sufficient numbers to keep rates near a competitive level. Before the Civil War, usurious lenders were typically called “note shavers” because they purchased promissory notes (the note) at steep discounts (the shave) from the face values on which interest was calculated.

“I cannot [lawfully] lend money on bond and mortgage at a rate exceeding 7% per annum interest,” explained one New Yorker in 1837, “but I may buy a bond and mortgage at 20, 30 or 40% less than the face of it; which gives me actually an interest of 9, 10 or 12% per annum.”

Antebellum banks generally charged rates at or below the legal maximum because lending at usurious rates could endanger their charters (their licenses to issue lucrative bank notes) and also (due to adverse selection) their capitals. So instead of servicing the illegal high riskhigh return market themselves, banks lent to note shavers who, in turn, made the usurious deals. Note shavers were attracted to high returns and the low expected cost of getting caught (the probability of being successfully prosecuted times the penalty imposed).

Museum of American Finance

After the Civil War, the term “note shaver” began to give way to “loan shark.” Sharks were later cast as entrepreneurs providing a much needed service, but at the time they were almost uniformly castigated as bloodhounds, charlatans, leeches and worse because their tactics were so unpalatable. Unsurprisingly, most usurers remained unincorporated and changed names and addresses frequently in order to remain as innocuous as possible. To garner some economies of scale, they formed interstate networks of agents, the largest of which operated in more than 60 cities.

By the early 20th century, the term loan shark was in common use, and its negative connotation—sharks were then considered “evil” predators—was considered “unmistakable.” In 1911, for example, Vaudevillian Harry Lauder sang, “Think of the sharks that we see in the sea, and think of the sharks that are not in the sea, that ought to be in the sea!”

Interestingly, early sharks rarely resorted to violence but rather took advantage of their borrowers’ ignorance of the law. Most ensnared their victims by having borrowers sign papers that they did not understand, often replete with blanks that were filled up later. Sharks collected the sums due not through the courts but by bluffing legal action and other methods that were said to “cause prolonged worry, destitution and sometimes suicide.”

Many collectors were females who verbally berated defaulters in public places to shame them into paying. Sharks also threatened to tell employers about wage assignments, which was often grounds for immediate dismissal. Other times, as a loan condition, sharks had borrowers draw a bad check and then threatened to turn the borrower over to authorities and prosecute them for fraud unless they immediately paid up. Or, they pointed to irregularities in the loan application (usually in a form detailing present indebtedness) and threatened to press fraud charges. 

Loan sharks largely remained under the sonar of Progressive reformers until the early 20th century, when contemporaries came to see “the utterly inhuman methods prevalent nowadays of handling what should be a legitimate business.” Reformers likened the small loan business to a “new system of slavery” or debt peonage because many borrowers found it impossible to extricate themselves from the jaws of the shark because the principal had to be repaid in a lump sum rather than in installments. One widely reported study, completed a few years before World War I, revealed that about one in every three poor working families borrowed from sharks, enough to support one shark for every 5,000 or 10,000 people in urban centers like Pittsburgh.

Such statistics energized an extermination effort led by the Russell Sage Foundation and comprised of publicity campaigns, new regulations and the formation of substitute lenders. Substitutes included non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like fraternal orders that charged no interest, Remedial Loan Societies that produced profits capped by law, mutuals and co-ops like credit unions owned by borrowers, and for-profit businesses that adhered to state usury laws. To encourage the formation of substitutes, some reformers cognizant of the high costs associated with making numerous small loans advocated raising legal interest for small lenders into the 20–40% per year range. Russell Sage Foundation lawyers also drafted a Uniform Small Loan Law that eventually was passed, albeit often in diluted form, in about 35 states.

Despite those efforts, the number, geographical reach (even into small agricultural towns in the heartland) and business volume of loan sharks increased markedly, from about $21 million in 1923 to $72 million in 1939, which brought them under the increased scrutiny of governments and NGOs. Penalties remained minimal, however, so the effectiveness of legislation was limited as “wily and ingenious” usurers developed sophisticated new scams, some involving automobile titles. Unlike corporate lenders and pawnbrokers, however, sharks looked primarily to their borrowers’ incomes, not collateral, for security. They thrived more on middling wages and bad luck or improvidence than on abject poverty, as it was difficult to exact high rates of interest from somebody who had no money.

As the Depression gave way to World War II, a few states had largely exterminated their sharks. In most states, however, sharks continued to thrive so alternatives, especially credit unions, again touted themselves as the way to “keep away from loan sharks!” In a 1940 pamphlet, proto-Keynesian economist William Trufant Foster (1879–1950) exposed the “modern loan shark,” men who could turn $20 into over $1,000 in just nine years by becoming a “bootlegger of small loans” in states—like Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Washington—that prevented legitimate lenders, like banks and credit unions, from flourishing. “Never has a campaign to enforce a 10% usury law,” he explained, “prevented wage earners from borrowing money at 240%” because the demand for small consumer loans was so pervasive.

Foster claimed that loan sharks lobbied in favor of maintaining or even lowering usury rates because “low legal interest keeps out legitimate lenders” like “legal, stringently regulated personal finance companies” that could lend profitably at rates between 24–42% per year. Foster was particularly peeved at well-meaning but uninformed persons who unintentionally aided loan sharks by pushing for lower usury ceilings or repeal of the Uniform Small Loan Law. “Persons who are uninformed, but of good intent,” he lamented, “cooperate with persons who are wellinformed, but of evil intent.”

Payday lending began in a tentative way during the Civil War, was common by the 1910s and was pervasive by the early 1940s. In order to avoid anti-sharking legislation, early payday lenders bought the right to collect a part of the borrower’s wage on his or her next pay day, kept no books, blacklisted people who asked for receipts and did business across state lines through the use of agents. As Foster explained, “this often means that only the agents can be reached, not the culprits higher up and farther away.” The agents claimed to own no assets, “not even their office desks.”

After World War II, banks, credit unions, finance companies and specialized small loan companies began to offer substantial quantities of short-term signature loans to America’s increasingly affluent working class, and their competition forced the old school loan shark far offshore. Nevertheless, the civil penalty for exacting usurious interest remained very low, ranging from loss of excess interest to loss of all interest and principal; it was a criminal offense in only a few states, and even in those places it was just a misdemeanor. Unsurprisingly, then, loan sharking came to be dominated by gangsters.

This new breed of shark, which evolved in the New York City underworld during the Great Depression but did not increase its range nationally until the early 1950s, treated the body of the borrower and the lives of his family members as the ultimate security for loans and interest payments on the order of 5% per week. Organized crime sharks also lent to small businesses and, when necessary, sucked business inventories dry in order to recoup their capital and “vigs,” much as depicted in the HBO series The Sopranos.

By 1966, loan sharks tied to organized crime lent an estimated $1 billion at rates between 250 and 2,000% per year. Although their reputation for violence often rendered the actual breaking of thumbs and limbs unnecessary, violent loan sharks were considered such a pressing social problem that in 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon made attacking them a “significant part” of his campaign. Congress responded by passing the Consumer Credit Protection Act of 1968, which outlawed “extortionate credit transactions” in an effort to undercut the “economic foundations of organized crime.”

The act imposed stiff penalties (up to a $10,000 fine and 20 years imprisonment) for the use of violence, or the threat thereof, in credit collections. By degrees, the government largely killed off the organized crime shark, partly by vigorously suppressing organized crime syndicates and partly by fostering lawful alternatives.

The result of the latter policy was the modern payday loan industry, a rapidly growing beast that made $14 billion in loans out of about 10,000 offices in 2000 and $27 billion out of 22,000 locations in 2012. Many experts argue that the modern industry is highly competitive and hence the rates charged, high as they are, are fair because they represent the risks and other costs associated with making numerous small loans. High rates on small sums for short periods do not amount to much money, they note, so many borrowers are actually better off getting a payday loan than having their electricity, heat or water turned off or paying bounced check fees.

Other experts, however, retort that many borrowers (more than half in many states) roll over their loans from paycheck to paycheck because they cannot repay the principal or because the lender makes it difficult for them to do so. As a consequence, borrowers end up paying far more in interest and fees than they anticipated. State payday loan regulations vary greatly, providing researchers with clues about the extent to which specific regulations, like rollover prohibitions, help to prevent borrowers from falling into the maw of this most recently evolved species of shark.

The debate, in other words, is no longer over the price of borrowing but the exact terms of the loan and its repayment. “Debt trapping ought to be prohibited,” as Robert Mayer put it.

–Robert E. Wright is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana College in South Dakota and a member of this magazine’s editorial board. He is the author of more than 15 books including One Nation Under Debt (2008) and is the co-author, with Museum Chairman Richard Sylla, of Genealogy of American Finance (Columbia Business School Publishing, Spring 2015).


A Familiar View of the Operation and Tendency of Usury Laws (New York: John Gray, 1837).

Foster, William Trufant. Loan Sharks and Their Victims (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1940).

Geisst, Charles R. Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Haller, Mark and John Alviti. “Loansharking in American Cities: Historical Analysis of a Marginal Enterprise.” American Journal of Legal History 21, 1 (April 1977): 125–56.

Malcolm, Walter D. and John J. Curtin, Jr. “The New Federal Attack on the Loan Shark Problem.” Law and Contemporary Problems 33, 4 (Autumn 1968): 765–85.

Mayer, Robert. Quick Cash: The Story of the Loan Shark (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010).

Shergold, Peter R. “The Loan Shark: The Small Loan Business in Early Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh.” Pennsylvania History 45, 3 (July 1978): 195–223.



What Happened to the U.S. Constitution? Effects of Changing Interpretations on International Debt and Banking—Part II

In Part I of my article, I described how the decision of an obscure federal judge promises to transform world debt markets. I planned in Part II to describe the Argentinean debt deal, but in the interim Bloomberg published an article that elucidates this matter in sufficient detail (Levine 2014). Furthermore, the document describing the debt settlement is available online (Securities and Exchange Commission 2005). I cannot claim to have read the entire document—219 pages of prospectus and approximately 150 pages of supplement—but I gleaned enough by browsing. It contains interesting information on how international debt is settled, and if I were to teach international finance, I would make a case study out of it.

Continue reading "What Happened to the U.S. Constitution? Effects of Changing Interpretations on International Debt and Banking—Part II" »


Recent Research: Highlights from February 2015

"On the Holy Grail of “Upside Participation and Downside Protection"
The Journal of Portfolio Management (Winter 2015)
Edward Qian

Upside participation and downside protection” is a popular motto for many investors. It has taken on much more significance in recent years, in the wake of the global financial crisis. But how do we define and evaluate strategies from the perspective of “upside participation and downside protection”? In this article, the authors present an analytic framework in which they provide a quantitative definition of upside and downside participation ratio, define participation ratio difference as a goodness measure for defensive strategies, and prove a relationship between the participation ratio difference and traditional alpha. As an illustration, they apply this new analysis to the S&P 500 Index and its 10 sectors and show that defensive, low-beta sectors tend to have positive participation ratio differences, while cyclical, high-beta sectors tend to have negative participation ratio differences. This finding is consistent with the low-beta/volatility anomaly and provides another explanation for the popularity of low-beta/volatility strategies.

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Life After the CFA Charter

I still remember the feeling of happiness, relief, and complete sense of accomplishment when I received a congratulatory email from CFA Institute on August 6, 2013 letting me know that I passed the Level III CFA exam.  I officially became a CFA Charterholder in November 2013. The certificate is very big, and I feel proud every time I look at it.  It reminds me that hard work and determination will help me overcome any challenges that I am currently facing, or will face in the future, as they did when I embarked on the CFA journey.

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Eight Leading Indicators That Your Banking Job Is Killing You


Is your banking job doing you in?

Your banking job may be boring. It may be exhausting, stressful, all-consuming, and fraught with the sort of political machinations better suited to an episode of Question Time, but does it have serious implications for your mortality? Researchers at Stanford Business School and Harvard University have come up with a helpful checklist of workplace stressors which suggest that it might.

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Book Review: Dead Companies Walking

Dead-companies-walkingScott Fearon's Dead Companies Walking: How A Hedge Fund Manager Finds Opportunity in Unexpected Places opens with an excellent summarization of his book. He begins, "My specialty is identifying what I call 'dead companies walking' which is what I call businesses on their way to bankruptcy and a zero-out share price." Fearon is no stranger to the task, having been doing this since he started his hedge fund in 1991. Since its founding, the fund has had only one down year.

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The Human Element in Investment Decisions



Making strategic investment decisions is not a task that should be taken haphazardly. Managers and MBA students spend time studying appropriate decision criteria such as net present value (NPV) to aid in making profit-maximizing decisions. However, in discussing investment decisions with practicing managers over the years, we sensed that managers often systematically deviated from profit maximization. In particular, we noticed that managers often equate changes in scaled profit measures (e.g., changes in return on investment [ROI]) with changes in total profits (i.e., marginal profits). This causes them to deviate systematically from profit maximization with respect to strategic investment decisions (e.g., research and development [R&D] investments, capital investments, acquisitions) by avoiding investments that increase total profits yet are less profitable than their average current investment. In other words, current levels of average profit create an anchor by which investments are assessed. This decision-making behavior, subtle but critical, was recently demonstrated by NYU Stern Management Professor Zur Shapira.

Professor Shapira, along with Carlson School of Management Professor J. Myles Shaver, devised studies that teased out this counter-productive pattern and described it in “Confounding Changes in Averages With Marginal Effects: How Anchoring Can Destroy Economic Value In Strategic Investment Assessments.”

Read the full paper here.



10 Phrases which Subtly Suggest You’re Powerless at Work


You have the job title, you have the Ferragamo loafers. You like to stand with your hands on your hips and your legs apart. You often invade other people’s personal space and you talk in the sort of high pitched voice with tonal modulations which is said to convey authority at work. But what you say also matters. However powerful your general demeanor, it will all be to no avail if you say things like, “He really did very well at this task.”

In a new article published in the International Journal of English Studies, Academics at the University of Murcia have helpfully assembled a list of phrases that indicate workplace powerlessness.

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The Body Language That’s Making You Unemployable


Why have you been to multiple job interviews and had no job offers? Why do your interviewers look at you as if you're Nigel Farage? Why do they stare out the window while you explain your motivation for working there?

If you’re interviewing for a job in an investment bank, your lack of success may be because banks are conducting purely "informational interviews" —namely interviews with the sole intention of extracting market intelligence from unsuspecting candidates. Then again, it may also be because your body language during job interviews is a big turn-off.

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How the CFA Charter Helped Me Find A Job

Most of us took up CFA exams for career advancement and development opportunities—so did I back in 2009, amongst other reasons

Upon scraping through the last Level III battle and obtaining the elusive CFA charter, I embarked on a job search, not because I wasn't happy with my current role at that time, but it was in response to my boss' comment during my year-end review and salary negotiation that prompted me to look around to "benchmark my market value." It was an interesting exercise as there wasn't a strong pressure to leave per se (i.e., I didn't hate my job/work environment), but I was also incentivized to secure a real offer, as that serves as a true measure of my market worth (plus it was always interesting, to me at least, to find out what other roles there are). 

Good practice for interviews? Definitely. Stressful? Certainly (the goal is still to secure a job offer!). Useful? Very, because I also got a good sense of employers' view of the CFA charter. Here's my attempt to provide a qualitative assessment of the CFA qualification on my job hunting process. 


Here's a subjective account of my job search experiences upon obtaining my CFA charter a few years ago, right in the midst of the financial crisis. The purpose is to qualitatively assess the impact of having the CFA charter on my job hunting endeavours. I view the job search process as three separate stages:

  • Job applications - the number of relevant jobs for which I could apply, and am interested in;
  • Response rate - the number of positive feedback or calls for interviews I had as a percentage of number of job applications made;
  • Interview rounds - the final stage, certainly the trickier bit (but not impossible) to master

Of course, my experience is by no means a definitive guide to what will happen to every charterholder (as they are many varying characteristics between my situation and theirs, as caveated below), but I believe there are things that we all can do, and learn, in order to improve your chances to get the job you want. No one has provided a detailed account of their life post as a CFA charterholder so I thought I'd get the ball rolling!

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Book Review: Millennial Money


This easy-to-read book encourages millennials to invest in the global stock market for wealth accumulation. It provides the reasons why they should invest, strategies they can follow, and behavioral pitfalls they should avoid.

Millennials have gone through a lot in the last two decades.1 They experienced recessions in 2001 and 2008, with the latter leading to the global financial crisis (GFC). For most millennials, their chosen careers have been a roller coaster ride, and some have already moved on to second careers, mostly because of the GFC’s severe effects on employers. Millennials have seen the life savings of their parents and others dwindle over a relatively short time. Consequently, they are skeptical about investing their hard-earned money in equity markets. In Millennial Money: How Young Investors Can Build a Fortune, Patrick O’Shaughnessy encourages millennials to overcome their skepticism and benefit from the process of wealth creation.

Millennial Money is an easy read that instills high doses of confidence through its analysis of historical data to explain why investing in risky assets is essential. O’Shaughnessy highlights the fact that the millennials’ greatest advantage is their youth and shows how compounding helps them in the long run. One dollar invested today could be worth $15 by the time a millennial retires in 40 years. If one waited 10 years to start investing, however, that dollar would be worth only $7.50 at the same rate of return. In short, postponing investment has a huge impact on one’s retirement lifestyle.

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Why Mock Exams Are Important

“Befitting its Greek roots, the marathon unfolds classic drama, carrying equal doses of comedy and tragedy, euphoria and agony.“ Take out the reference to Greece and substitute CFA exam for marathon and this line from Marathon Training Plan & Schedule by Josh Clark sounds like a perfect description for the CFA exam study experience.

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It Is Time for a Cyber FDIC

In today’s modern frictionless economy, the principal requisite for growth and order is the free flow of sensitive information, banking transactions, and private data on a global scale.

With this shift brought on by the unrelenting growth of e-commerce and mobile platforms comes the nagging reality that cyber risk is here to stay. It is the sort of drag on the market that needs to be priced into the system rather than treated like something that can be eliminated or perfectly controlled. Market and consumer expectations need to be adjusted accordingly and in the age of hyper transparency, people would be wise to remember that anything can be exposed to sunlight.

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Four Reasons You Should Not Write a White Paper

White papers can be great marketing tools. Done right, they give web surfers reasons to join your email list and persuade them that you understand—and have solutions to—their problems. However, done poorly, white papers waste your time—and your readers’ time. To help you avoid pointlessly sinking your energy into white papers, I’m sharing four reasons you should not write a white paper.

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How the CFA Charter Helped Me Find A Job

Most of us took up CFA exams for career advancement and development opportunities - so did I back in 2009, amongst other reasons

Upon scraping through the last Level III battle and obtaining the elusive CFA charter, I embarked on a job search, not because I wasn't happy with my current role at that time, but it was in response to my boss' comment during my year-end review and salary negotiation that prompted me to look around to "benchmark my market value." It was an interesting exercise as there wasn't a strong pressure to leave per se (i.e. I didn't hate my job/work environment), but I was also incentivized to secure a real offer that serves as a true measure of my market worth (plus it was always interesting, to me at least, to find out what other roles there are). 

Continue reading "How the CFA Charter Helped Me Find A Job" »


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NYSSA Friday Career Coffee™: Catapult your Career by Using Persuasive Communication
Friday, February 27, 2015

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FREE CFA Level III Sample Class- Session A

Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level II Weekly Review – Session A Mondays

Monday, January 5, 2015 – Monday May 11, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level III Weekly Review – Session A Tuesdays

Tuesday, January 6, 2015 – Tuesday April 28, 2015
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FREE CFA Level III Sample Class- Session B

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level III Weekly Review – Session B Thursdays

Thursday, January 15, 2015 – Thursday May 7, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

FREE CFA Level II Sample Class- Session B

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level II Weekly Review – Session B Wednesdays

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 – Wednesday May 13, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level III 6-Week Sunday Condensed Review

Sunday March 15, 2015 – Sunday May 3, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level II 6-Week Saturday Condensed Review

Saturday March 21, 2015 – Saturday May 2, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA

CFA® Level II 4-Day Boot Camp

Thursday May 14, 2015 – Sunday May 17, 2015
Instructor: O. Nathan Ronen, CFA