Robinhood Financial, which has become a disruptive force in the stock market with a mobile trading app that allows inexperienced investors to buy and sell shares, has agreed to pay $65 million as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for misleading customers about how it makes money and for failing to secure the best sale prices.
Launched to the public in 2015, Robinhood allows its estimated nine million customers to buy and sell stocks without charging a per-trade fee that, until very recently, was common practice in the industry. According to the SEC, from 2015 to late 2018, Robinhood earned most of its revenue from payments it received from other trading firms in exchange for submitting customer orders for shares, called “payment for order flow.”
But the company failed to adequately disclose that payment for order flow was a significant source of its revenue, scrubbing mention of the practice from its Website and instructing sales and call center staff not to discuss the issue with customers, the SEC said in its order Thursday.
The SEC found that over the same period, Robinhood regularly earned inferior prices for its customers compared to other brokers, because Robinhood’s contracts with brokers emphasized receipt of a higher payment for order flow.
Some brokerage firms working with Robinhood suggested the company offer “price improvement” on customer orders—a service typically offered by most brokerage firms which buys or sells stocks at a slightly better price compared to the prevailing bid on the market at the time of execution. But emphasizing payment for order flow crowded out most brokers’ ability to offer price improvement to Robinhood’s customers, the SEC said.
Robinhood lost its customers an aggregate of $34.1 million in share prices compared to other brokerage firms over the two-plus-year period, the SEC said.
“Robinhood failed to seek to obtain the best reasonably available terms when executing customers’ orders, causing customers to lose tens of millions of dollars,” said Joseph Sansone, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Market Abuse Unit, in a press release.
Although the company did not admit nor deny the SEC’s findings, it agreed to be censured and to ”retain an independent consultant to review its policies and procedures relating to customer communications, payment for order flow, and best execution of customer orders, and to ensure that Robinhood is effectively following those policies and procedures,” the SEC said.
A Robinhood spokesman said the company is “fully transparent in our communications with customers about our current revenue streams, [has] significantly improved our best execution processes, and [has] established relationships with additional market makers to improve execution quality.”
Dan Gallagher, Robinhood’s chief legal officer, said the settlement “does not reflect Robinhood today. We recognize the responsibility that comes with having helped millions of investors make their first investments, and we’re committed to continuing to evolve Robinhood as we grow to meet our customers’ needs.”
According to the SEC’s order, Robinhood formed a “Best Execution Committee” around September 2016 to “monitor the speed and the prices at which the principal trading firms were executing Robinhood customer orders.” The committee met at least once per month and included Robinhood’s general counsel. From October 2016 through at least June 2019, the SEC said the committee “observed that Robinhood was not obtaining much price improvement on its customer orders in equity securities, particularly on orders of 100 shares or more.”
By March 2019, an internal analysis found Robinhood’s “execution quality and price improvement metrics were substantially worse than other retail broker-dealers in many respects,” the SEC said. Even then, the committee did not “conduct adequate regular and rigorous reviews that involved benchmarking its execution quality against competitor broker-dealers to determine whether it was obtaining the best terms reasonably available for customer orders.”
The SEC settlement is only one headache for Robinhood. Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office filed a complaint against the company for aggressively marketing to inexperienced investors and failing to put controls in place to protect them.
In August, Bloomberg reported the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) were investigating Robinhood regarding several outages of its trading platform that cost its customers money. The probe is focused on Robinhood’s slow response, among other issues.