Over the last two weeks, the SEC has put robo-advisers on notice that they are on the staff’s radar. First, on February 23, 2017, the SEC’s Division of Investment Management, along with the SEC’s Office of Compliance, Inspections, and Examinations, issued a Guidance Update for robo-advisers. The term “robo-adviser” refers to registered automated investment advisers that provide investment advice that uses computer algorithms. Robo-advisers generally collect information about a client’s financial goals, income, assets, investment horizon, and risk tolerance by way of an online or electronic questionnaire. With limited human interaction, robo-advisers use this information to create and manage investment portfolios for clients. Robo-advisers are often more economical than traditional investment advisers. Robo-advisers, which began as an appeal to millennials, are now widely becoming popular with all age groups and types of investors.
The Guidance Update focused on in three unique areas of the investment relationship: (1) the substance and presentation of disclosures to clients about the robo-adviser and the investment advisory services it offers; (2) the obligation to obtain information from clients to support the robo-adviser’s duty to provide suitable advise; and (3) the adoption and implementation of effective compliance programs reasonable designed to address particular concerns relevant to providing automated advice.
This Guidance Update specifically encourages robo-advisers to keep clients well-informed with respect to their use of algorithms to manage client funds. Robo-advisers must be diligent in their disclosures to clients of the risks and limitations inherent in the use of algorithms to manage investments. For example, an algorithm may not address prolonged changes in market conditions and investors need to know that. The Guidance Update also reminds robo-advisers that because of the limited human interaction with the client, issues, like disclosures, would most likely be done online. As such, communications, including written disclosures, should be effective, not hidden or indecipherable. Finally, the Guidance Update highlighted that for robo-advisers, compliance with the Advisory Act of 1940 may require more written documentation than regular investment advisers must provide. For example, robo-advisers should consider documenting the development, testing, and backtesting of the algorithms, the process by which they collect client information, and the appropriate oversight of any third party that develops or owns the algorithm or software utilized by the robo-adviser.
In addition to the Guidance provided to robo-advisers, the SEC Office of Investor Education and Advocacy also issued an Investor Bulletin on the subject of robo-advisers to alert potential clients to specific areas when dealing with a robo-adviser would be different from a more traditional adviser. Such areas include (1) the minimized level of personal interaction a client would receive, e.g., do you ever speak to a human?; (2) the standard information a robo-adviser uses to formulate recommendations, e.g., are the robo-advisers asking all the pertinent questions in their questionnaires?; (3) the robo-adviser’s approach to investing, e.g., are the robo-advisers using pre-determined portfolios or can you customize your investments?; and (4) the fees and charges involved, e.g., could you be charged penalties or fees if you want to withdraw your investment? Investors should consider using robo-advisers because of the economic advantages but must be aware of the differences inherent in this new 21st century version of the investment advisor.
The SEC requires robo-advisers to be registered and makes them subject to the same substantive and fiduciary obligations as traditional investment advisers. In addition to the Alert and the Guidance Update, the SEC staff also addressed robo-advisers at SEC Speaks on February 24, 2017. At the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) panel, the office’s senior leadership put the audience and industry on notice of OCIE’s “Electronic Investment Advice Initiative.” Specifically, OCIE advised that it will be dedicating staff and resources to prioritize examining robo-advisers for this SEC fiscal year. Due to OCIE applying a risk-based approach to its examination program, they will likely focus on robo-advisers with large platforms or business models that OCIE believes pose potential risks to investors. For robo-advisers to prepare, we recommend that firms review the February 23, 2017 Guidance Update and the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy Investor Bulletin described above to proactively plan to be in compliance with this guidance. This way, firms examined as part of the Electronic Investment Advice Initiative, can attempt to avoid significant deficiencies or enforcement referrals from OCIE’s increased scrutiny of robo-advisers.