Already reeling from last week’s $3 billion penalty related to its fake accounts scandal, Wells Fargo took another hit Thursday: a $35 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a failure to oversee advisors who recommended high-risk “single-inverse ETF investments” to risk-averse retail investors, and for lacking adequate compliance policies and procedures around those recommendations.
The $35 million will be distributed to harmed investors, according to a statement from the SEC announcing the penalty.
A single-inverse exchange-traded fund (ETF) investment allows savvy investors to profit when the market or an underlying index declines. It’s designed as a short-term position that could result in large, unexpected losses if held for longer than a day. The SEC’s order in penalizing Wells Fargo Clearing Services and Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network found that—from April 2012 through September 2019—some of the company’s advisors did not fully grasp the risk of losses these complex products posed.
“As a result, certain Wells Fargo investment advisers and registered representatives made unsuitable recommendations to certain clients to buy and hold single-inverse ETFs for months or years,” the SEC explained. “According to the order, a number of these clients were senior citizens and retirees who had limited incomes and net worth, and conservative or moderate risk tolerances.”
The SEC order faults Wells Fargo for not keeping a close enough eye on its employees’ recommendations regarding single-inverse ETFs and noted its compliance policies for these funds—adopted in August 2009 and updated in April 2012—were deemed “not as robust as those of certain other large brokerage and investment advisory firms, which had procedures such as: reviewing products held long term; requiring financial advisors to complete training; and providing risk disclosure notices to investors.”
The order specifically mentioned Wells Fargo’s inadequate compliance policies and procedures nine times in the 12-page document. The company agreed to pay the penalty without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings.
“Firms must maintain effective compliance and supervisory programs to ensure that the securities they recommend are suitable for their clients,” said Antonia Chion, associate director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “As a result of Wells Fargo’s failure to meet these important obligations, some of its employees recommended complex instruments to retail investors who did not understand the risks involved.”
This penalty comes less than a week after the Department of Justice and SEC assessed total civil and criminal penalties of $3 billion against Wells Fargo in the aftermath of its fake account scandal.
According to the DOJ, that settlement resolved three separate matters resulting from a years-long practice of what it described as “pressuring employees to meet unrealistic sales goals, which led thousands of employees to provide millions of accounts or products to customers under false pretenses or without consent, often by creating false records or misusing customers’ identities.”