The Securities and Exchange Commission instituted settled proceedings against two robo-advisers for making false statements about investment products and publishing misleading advertising. The proceedings are the SEC’s first enforcement actions against robo-advisers, which provide automated, software-based portfolio management services.
An SEC order found that California-based Wealthfront Advisers, a robo-adviser with over $11 billion in AuM, made false statements about a tax-loss harvesting strategy it offered to clients. Wealthfront disclosed to clients employing its tax-loss harvesting strategy that it would monitor all client accounts for any transactions that might trigger a wash sale – which can diminish the benefits of the harvesting strategy – but failed to do so.
Over a period of more than three years during which it made this disclosure, wash sales occurred in at least 31% of accounts enrolled in Wealthfront’s tax loss harvesting strategy. The SEC’s order also found that Wealthfront improperly re-tweeted prohibited client testimonials, paid bloggers for client referrals without the required disclosure and documentation, and failed to maintain a compliance program reasonably designed to prevent violations of the securities laws.
Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Wealthfront consented to the entry of the SEC’s order censuring it, requiring it to cease and desist from further violations, and imposing a $250k penalty.
A separate SEC order found that New York City-based Hedgeable, a robo-adviser with some $81 million AuM, made a series of misleading statements about its investment performance. According to the order, from 2016 until April 2017, Hedgeable posted on its website and social media purported comparisons of the investment performance of Hedgeable’s clients with those of two robo-adviser competitors.
The performance comparisons were misleading because Hedgeable included less than 4% of its client accounts, which had higher-than-average returns. Hedgeable compared this with rates of return that were not based on competitors’ actual trading models. The SEC’s order also found that Hedgeable failed to maintain required documentation and failed to maintain a compliance program reasonably designed to prevent violations of the securities laws.
“Technology is rapidly changing the way investment advisers are able to advertise and deliver their services to clients,” said Dabney O’Riordan, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Asset Management Unit. “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.”
Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Hedgeable consented to the entry of the SEC’s order censuring it, requiring it to cease and desist from further violations, and imposing an $80,000 penalty.