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The Robinhood trading app displayed on a phone in San Anselmo, Calif., on Dec. 17, 2020.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Robinhood Financial agreed to pay US$65-million to settle government charges that it failed to disclose the full details of its dealings with high-speed traders and didn’t get the best prices for customers trading on its app, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said Thursday.

Robinhood and other retail brokerage firms can bring in revenue by routing customers’ orders to high-speed traders and other big investors, which in turn pay for the right to execute many of the trades in hopes of making a profit.

The charges stem from an investigation by the SEC into how Robinhood disclosed its arrangements with high-speed traders. Robinhood neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings under the settlement.

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“Between 2015 and late 2018, Robinhood made misleading statements and omissions in customer communications, including in FAQ pages on its website, about its largest revenue source when describing how it made money – namely, payments from trading firms in exchange for Robinhood sending its customer orders to those firms for execution, also known as ‘payment for order flow,’” the SEC statement read.

Regulators also concluded that Robinhood provided inferior prices for trades on its platform, depriving its customers of US$34.1-million even after taking into account savings from commission-free trading.

“Robinhood provided misleading information to customers about the true costs of choosing to trade with the firm,” said Stephanie Avakian, director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division.

In a statement, Robinhood said it is “fully transparent” with customers about the ways it currently makes money and has taken steps to improve the process.

“The settlement relates to historical practices that do not reflect Robinhood today,” said Dan Gallagher, Robinhood’s chief legal officer.

It’s taken only a few years for Robinhood to become one of the country’s largest brokers for regular investors, in large part because it lets customers trade stocks without paying any commissions. It says it wants to make “investing for everyone.”

But Robinhood’s zero-commission trades came with a catch, regulators said: Its customers got their trades done at worse prices than they would have received if they were at a competing brokerage. For big orders, the difference in price would have been more than enough to make up for the commissions that a competing brokerage would have charged.

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Despite such differences, the SEC says Robinhood falsely claimed in a website FAQ between October, 2018, and June, 2019, that its execution quality matched or beat that of its competitors.

Beyond the US$65-million payment, Robinhood also agreed in its settlement to get an independent consultant to review its policies and procedures relating to customer communications and other issues.

Robinhood’s fast growth has brought increased regulatory scrutiny and criticism. A day earlier, regulators in Massachusetts alleged Robinhood violated securities laws by aggressively marketing itself to investors “without regard for the best interest of its customers,” while also failing to maintain a properly working platform as its number of users exploded.

Robinhood said it disagrees with the complaint and intends to mount a vigorous defence.

A year ago, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority fined Robinhood US$1.25-million after accusing it of not doing everything it should to find the best prices for customers trading stocks. Robinhood neither admitted nor denied the allegations in that settlement.

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