The Securities and Exchange Commission appears to be keeping a close eye on financial services startups, with today’s news that the agency has settled cases with two robo-advisory companies over allegations that they misled investors.
Wealthfront Advisers, one of the darlings of the fintech investment sector with $11 billion under management and roughly $200 million in venture capital backing, was fined $250,000 for making false statements to investors about one of its newer automated financial services products. The company consented to the SEC’s censure without confirming or denying the SEC’s claims.
The SEC also fined New York-based startup Hedgeable, a company with $81 million in assets under management, for inflating performance figures for its service. Hedgeable also agreed to the SEC’s censure order without confirming or denying any wrongdoing.
“Technology is rapidly changing the way investment advisers are able to advertise and deliver their services to clients,” said C. Dabney O’Riordan, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Asset Management Unit, in a statement. “Regardless of their format, however, all advisers must take seriously their obligations to comply with the securities laws, which were put in place to protect investors.”
The charges against Redwood City, Calif.-based Wealthfront Advisers stems from alleged false statements the company made about a tax-loss harvesting strategy that the company offered to its clients.
Wealthfront told its customers that it would look for transactions in its automated service that might trigger a “wash sale” — which has tax implications and can limit the benefits of a tax-harvesting strategy.
According to the SEC, the company actually failed to monitor the accounts accurately, and roughly 31 percent of Wealthfront account holders enrolled in the tax harvesting strategy were subject to penalties associated with wash sales.
Additionally, the company promoted prohibited client testimonials and paid bloggers for client referrals without disclosing and documenting the payments. The company also failed to maintain appropriate compliance programs designed to prevent violations of securities laws, according to the SEC.
Wealthfront issued the following statement about the SEC action:
We take our regulatory duties seriously at Wealthfront and are happy to have reached a settlement with the SEC. The settlement order addressed Wealthfront’s retweets of clients’ positive tweets from our corporate account and compensation to some bloggers for client referrals without proper disclosures.
Additionally, Wealthfront did not have proper disclosure in its tax-loss harvesting whitepaper concerning monitoring for any and all wash sales that could occur in client accounts.
For example, a wash sale can be triggered by infrequent events outside of tax-loss harvesting trading including a client changing their risk score or a withdrawal. During the period January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2016, wash sales made up approximately 2.3% of tax losses harvested for the benefit of clients. Therefore the average Wealthfront client received 5.67% in total annual harvesting yield versus 5.8%.
At Hedgeable, another, much smaller robo-advisor, the SEC found that the company had manipulated results it reported to the public by cherry-picking the best-performing accounts it managed. Hedgeable then compared these rates of return with figures that were not based on its competitors’ training models to skew results in its favor. The company also lacked proper compliance programs that would prevent the company from violating securities laws.
These penalties follow a crackdown that the SEC imposed on cryptocurrency companies that were also illegally promoting themselves via social media channels and famous influencers like DJ Khaled and Floyd Mayweather.
While Wealthfront and Hedgeable are real companies offering tangible services (unlike many of the obviously fraudulent cryptocurrency schemes that the SEC has been monitoring), the SEC investigations coupled with the botched rollout of brokerage accounts from the free trading service Robinhood show that even viable fintech companies are under the regulatory microscope.
As these services become more popular and their assets under management continue to grow, they may find that more regulators will be knocking at startups’ doors.