The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged three Charles Schwab investment adviser subsidiaries for not disclosing that they were allocating client funds in a manner that their own internal analyses showed would be less profitable for their clients under most market conditions. The subsidiaries agreed to pay $187 million to harmed clients to settle the charges.
According to the SEC’s order, from March 2015 through November 2018, Schwab’s mandated disclosures for its robo-adviser product, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, stated that the amount of cash in the robo-adviser portfolios was determined through a “disciplined portfolio construction methodology,” and that the robo-adviser would seek “optimal return[s].” In reality, Schwab’s own data showed that under most market conditions, the cash in the portfolios would cause clients to make less money even while taking on the same amount of risk. Schwab advertised the robo-adviser as having neither advisory nor hidden fees, but didn’t tell clients about this cash drag on their investment.
Schwab made money from the cash allocations in the robo-adviser portfolios by sweeping the cash to its affiliate bank, loaning it out, and then keeping the difference between the interest it earned on the loans and what it paid in interest to the robo-adviser clients.
“Schwab claimed that the amount of cash in its robo-adviser portfolios was decided by sophisticated economic algorithms meant to optimize its clients’ returns when in reality it was decided by how much money the company wanted to make,” said Gurbir S. Grewal, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “Schwab’s conduct was egregious and today’s action sends a clear message to advisers that they need to be transparent with clients about hidden fees and how such fees affect clients’ returns.”
Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Schwab’s investment adviser subsidiaries, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc., and Schwab Wealth Investment Advisory, Inc., agreed to a cease-and-desist order prohibiting them from violating the antifraud provisions of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, censuring them, and requiring them to pay approximately $52 million in disgorgement and prejudgment interest, and a $135 million civil penalty. The subsidiaries also agreed to retain an independent consultant to review their policies and procedures relating to their robo-adviser’s disclosures, advertising, and marketing, and to ensure that they are effectively following those policies and procedures.