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Robinhood deserves 'close look' from SEC: Elizabeth Warren

·4 min read
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SEC Chair Gary Gensler in House testimony on Thursday criticized apps that "gamify" stock trading and the potential conflict of interest for market makers that profit from the execution of high-volume trades, hinting at potential new rules that would apply to the popular trading app Robinhood and market maker Citadel Securities.

In a new interview, progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said she supports new SEC rules for companies like Robinhood. Such regulations should impose disclosure requirements regarding an app's use of customer data and trades, and address the heart of "what business models ought to be permissible" to ensure stable and transparent markets, Warren said.

"My principal issue with Robinhood is how much they actually disclosed to their customers about how their customers' data and how their customers' trades were being used," says Warren, author of a new book entitled "Persist."

"I want to see the SEC take a close look," she adds. "I think it's time for the SEC to update its regulations on disclosure."

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

"But also update its regulations around what business models ought to be permissible in a market so that those markets are steady, transparent, are open to everyone," she says. "Not markets where the real money is being made in the back in the shadows where no one can see it."

Robinhood declined to respond to Warren's remarks.

The SEC brought charges against Robinhood in December accusing it of misleading customers about the revenue it derives from the fulfillment of orders. The agency reached a $65 million settlement with the company that month, though Robinhood did not admit to or deny the agency's findings.

In his testimony on Thursday, Gensler questioned Robinhood's practice of accepting smaller price improvement for traders in exchange for higher payments from the market makers that fulfill the trades — a practice that can effectively nullify the commission-free trading promised by the platform.

Robinhood drew heightened scrutiny on Jan. 28, when the platform temporarily prevented users from buying shares of GameStop (GME) and other high-volume stocks. 

Some observers speculated that Robinhood had suspended buying GameStop to benefit Citadel — a hedge fund that shares ownership with one of Robinhood's market makers, Citadel Securities. Citadel helped put together $2 billion for Melvin Capital, another hedge fund that had suffered losses from its short position on GameStop. Many called on the SEC to prohibit such suspensions going forward.

Vlad Tenev, CEO of Robinhood Markets, is seen testifying about GameStop trading in a frame grab from video during an entirely virtual hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services entitled “Game Stopped? Who Wins and Loses When Short Sellers, Social Media, and Retail Investors Collide?”, in Washington, U.S., February 18, 2021.   House Committee on Financial Services/Handout via Reuters
Vlad Tenev, CEO of Robinhood Markets, is seen testifying about GameStop trading in Washington, U.S., February 18, 2021. House Committee on Financial Services/Handout via Reuters

"It's long past time for regulators to wake up and prevent market manipulation in the future," Warren tweeted on Jan. 28.

Over the following weeks, investors filed more than 90 lawsuits alleging that the suspension of buying GameStop had violated the law and unfairly penalized traders.

Since soon after the suspension, Robinhood has rejected speculation about a sinister ulterior motive for the move. Rather, the company has said it took the action due to minimum capital requirements that it must deposit with clearing houses, which it says became too onerous amid the high-volume trading.

'They're not this scrappy little upstart'

The company considers itself a much-needed trading platform for small investors who often lack affordable and easy access to the stock market. In response to criticism of the platform on May 1 from Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, Robinhood said, "People are tired of the Warren Buffetts and Charlie Mungers of the world acting like they are the only oracles of investing."

Elizabeth Warren spoke to Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

A former 2020 presidential candidate, Warren grew up in Oklahoma, dropped out of college to get married, and later became a law professor at Harvard University and the brain behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — all before she joined the Senate in 2013.

Bolstered regulations would prevent companies like Robinhood from presenting themselves as champions for small investors when in fact their practices benefit large Wall Street firms, Warren said. 

"I worry a lot about these companies that get out and appear to be one kind of good guy model, and it actually turns out, no, they're not this little scrappy upstart," Warren says.

"They're actually just fronting for giant companies that are making money not only in the trades, but making money by harvesting the information ahead of everyone else, in terms of what those trades are doing."

Clarification: This article was clarified to note that Citadel Securities is only one of Robinhood's market makers.

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