CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments: Our Cheat Sheet

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Whilst a relatively smaller topic weight in the overall CFA Level 1 exams, Alternative Investments is an important topic career-wise if you work in asset management as it is expected to capture 49% of global asset management revenue by 2024.

I personally found this topic very interesting – a nice break from the traditional fixed income and equity. It is the perfect topic to master to maximize your exam scores since it is a relatively short reading for its topic weight.

Hence, we have created a quick cheat sheet to CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments to help save you some precious study time.

Our Cheat Sheet series focuses on one specific topic area for each CFA Level.

More Cheat Sheets will be published in the coming weeks, sign up to our member’s list to be notified first.

By referring to the CFA Learning Outcome Statements (LOS), we prioritize and highlight the absolute key concepts and formula you need to know for each topic. Plus some topic-specific tips at the end too!

A nice and short topic for once, let’s master this 🙂

CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments: An Overview

cfa level 1 alternative investments

Given that this Study Session is limited to a single reading with roughly half a dozen LOS, candidates are not expected to develop a particularly detailed understanding of this material – at least not for the Level 1 exam. However, the readings at Levels 2 and 3 go into greater depth, but cover the same sub-categories listed above.

CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments’ topic weighting is 5-8%, which means 9-14 questions of the 180 questions of CFA Level 1 exam is centered around this topic.

For 2021’s curriculum, it is covered in Study Session 7, which includes Reading 50.

Here’s a summary of Alternative Investments chapter reading:

Reading NumberSub-topicDescription
50Introduction to Alternative InvestmentsAn overview to Alternative Investments asset class, such as hedge funds, private equity, real estate, commodities and infrastructure investments.

We look at each of their distinguishing characteristics, valuation considerations, potential risks and benefits, whilst also comparing the similarities and differences with stocks and bonds.

The CFA curriculum tends to categorize all assets other than equity and fixed-income as alternative investments, so this Study Session covers a broad range of topics from tangible assets such as gold to hedge fund strategies. Specifically, the categories of alternative investments are:

Hedge fundsThese are not distinct assets, many hedge funds invest in stocks or bonds.

What distinguishes hedge funds as an alternative investment is the variety of strategies that they employ.

Investing in hedge funds can offer very attractive risk adjusted returns, but expect to pay significant fees for the privilege of doing so (and don’t expect to be able to access your money for a while).
Private equity​​This category includes two important sub-categories:
1) buyout funds, which make highly-leveraged purchases of established companies, and
2) venture capital funds, which provide equity to young companies that have yet to establish themselves in the market (or, in some cases, in an office outside of their founder’s garage)…
Real estate​Owning real estate is a relatively simple concept, but there are several ways to think of this as an asset class.

It is possible to own real estate directly, for example as many own their own home or rental properties, or indirect through an investment vehicle such as a real estate investment trust (REIT).
CommoditiesWe’ve all learned how to invest in commodities by watching Trading Places (and if you haven’t, you must), but the curriculum goes into a bit more detail.

Commodities investing is growing at a rapid rate and this topic will play a larger role in the curriculum at Levels 2 and 3.

In a nutshell, the various markets in which alternative investments trade are less liquid than traditional stock and bond market, which means that there is greater potential to exploit inefficient pricing and earn abnormal profits.

With alternative investments expected to hold 49% of global asset management revenue and represent 17% of AuM by 2024, it is important for any financial analyst to understand how best to utilize this asset class to improve a portfolio’s risk-return profile.

Reading 50: Introduction to Alternative Investments

CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments: Our Cheat Sheet 1

Hedge funds

Hedge fund strategies:

Event-drivenA short-term investing strategy that seeks to exploit pricing inefficiencies before or after a major corporate event, e.g. bankruptcy, spin-off, mergers and acquisitions.

Specific strategies include merger arbitrage, distressed debt, activist, special situations.
Relative valueA strategy that seeks to profit from the price differential between related financial instruments such as stocks and bonds.

Examples include fixed income convertible arbitrage, fixed income asset backed, fixed income general, volatility and multi-strategy.
MacroUses a top-down approach to identify market trends, taking bets on the direction of a market, currency, exchange rate, interest rate, commodity or any macroeconomic variable.
Equity hedgeA bottom-up approach which takes long or short positions in equity or equity derivative securities.

Examples include market neutral, fundamental growth, fundamental value, quantitative directional, short bias, sector specific strategies.

Hedge fund fees:

  • 2 and 20” means 2% management fee (based on AuM) and 20% incentive fee (hurdle rate or high water mark provisions may apply)
  • Soft hurdle rate: incentive fees are calculated on the entire return if hurdle rate is cleared.
  • Hard hurdle rate: incentive fees are calculated on the return above the hurdle rate.
  • High water mark: incentive fees are only applies to profits after previous losses are recovered.

Private equity

Leveraged buyouts (LBOs)Use borrowed funds to buy an established company. The company will be restructured to improve operations and eventually increase cashflow and profit.

2 types of LBOs:
– management buyouts (MBOs) where current management team buys and runs the company,
– management buy-ins (MBIs) where current management team is replaced and run by the acquirer.
Venture capital (VC)Investments in less established companies with significant growth potential.

VC investing can take place at various stages:
Formative stage: angel investing, seed investing, early stage
Later stage financing: for expansion after commercial productions and sales but before IPO
Mezzanine financing: preparing for IPO.
Development capitalMinority equity investments in established companies that require funds for growth/expansion, restructuring, acquisition etc.
Distressed investingBuying debt of mature companies in financial distress.
  • Private equity exit strategies: trade sale, IPO, recapitalization, secondary sale, write off/liquidation.
  • Valuation methods for portfolio company: market or comparables approach, discounted cash flow approach, asset-based approach.

Real estate

CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments: Our Cheat Sheet 2
Investment categoriesResidential property, commercial real estate, REITs, timberland/farmland.
Performance measurement3 categories of index to measure real estate returns:
Appraisal index: uses estimates rather than real transaction values, which understates volatility.

Repeat sales index: Uses repeat sales of properties to construct the indices, but this suffers from sample selection bias since it’s unlikely the same property is available for sale annually.

REIT index: this is based on prices of publicly traded REITs, which accuracy depends on how frequently the shares of the index trade.
Real estate valuation approaches3 methods for valuation:
– comparable sales approach,
– income approach (direct capitalization method and discounted cash flow method),
– cost approach.
REIT valuation approaches2 methods:
– income based approach using funds from operations (FFO) and adjusted FFO.
– asset based approach using net asset value (NAV)


  • Commodities futures price = Spot price x (1+r) + Storage costs – Convenience Yield
  • Contango = when commodity futures price > spot price. Happens when there is little or no convenience yield.
  • Backwardation = when commodity futures price < spot price. Happens when there is high convenience yield.
  • 3 sources of return for a commodity futures contract:
    • Roll yield: Spot price – futures price
    • Collateral yield: interest earned on the collateral
    • Spot prices, which is determined by supply and demand


  • Investments in real, capital intensive, long-lived assets
  • Categories of infrastructure investments:
    • Economic infrastructure assets: transportation (road, railways etc) and utility assets (water, gas, electricity distribution).
    • Social infrastructure assets: examples are healthcare and educational facilities.
    • Brownfield investments are investments in existing infrastructure assets.
    • Greenfield investments are investments in yet to be built infrastructure assets.

CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments Tips

CFA Level 1 Alternative Investments: Our Cheat Sheet 3

​This is a heavily qualitative Study Session that will require you to use your calculators sparingly, if at all.

The key answering questions on this topic is to understand and identify the differences between various types of alternative investments as well as the distinguishing features of categories within asset classes.

​For example, it is important to know the difference between direct and indirect real estate investing. In the case of hedge funds, it is important to be able to distinguish between the different classifications of strategies (see the sample question below).

​An exam question on alternative investments may look something like this:

Which of the following hedge fund strategies is most likely to be categorized as a relative value strategy?

A. Merger arbitrage
B. Quantitative directional
C. Fixed income convertible arbitrage

Option C is the correct answer. Fixed income convertible arbitrage is a relative value strategy that involves taking long and short positions in related securities with a view to profiting from short-term pricing discrepancies.

Choice A is incorrect because merger arbitrage is an event-driven strategy. Choice B is incorrect because quantitative directional strategies fall in the category of equity hedge strategies.

This sample shows that, while the Level 1 curriculum covers alternative investments at a high level, it is still necessary to develop a strong understanding of important details.

The CFA Level 1Alternative Investments may be covered from a highly qualitative perspective, but it is not unreasonable to expect a question asking you to calculate hedge fund fees. Such a question may look something like this:

The Axe Capital Fund begins the year with $2 billion of assets under management (AUM). Fund manager Bobby Axelrod charges a 2% management fee (based on ending AUM) and a 20% incentive fee, which subject to a 5% hard hurdle rate and calculated net of the management fee. At the end of the year, the fund’s value has increased by  17%. The total amount of fees earned by Bobby Axelrod for that year’s performance is closest to:

A. $85 million.
B. $95 million.
C. $105 million.

Option A is the correct answer and can be calculated as follows:

The Axe Capital Fund begins the year with $2 billion in AUM and grows by 17% to $2,340 million over the course of the year. Bobby Axelrod’s management fee is $2,340 million x 2% = $46.8 million. The 20% incentive fee is subject to a 5% hard hurdle rate, so it is only applied on gains above $100 million ($2 billion x 5%). The incentive fee is also calculated net of the management fee calculated above, so the relevant gain is:

$340 million – $100 million – $46.8 million = $193.2 million

20% of $193.2 million is $38.64 million, which is Axelrod’s incentive fee and brings his total compensation for the year to $46.8 million + $38.64 million = $85.44 million.

Choice B is incorrect because this represents Axelrod’s total compensation if a soft hurdle rate (or none at all) had been used and the incentive fee had been calculated net of the management fee. Choice C is incorrect because this represents his total compensation if a hard hurdle rate is used, but the incentive fee had been calculated gross of the management fee.

More Cheat Sheet articles will be published over the coming weeks. Get ahead of other CFA candidates by signing up to our member’s list to get notified.

Meanwhile, here are other related articles that may be of interest:


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