Regulators Descend on Robinhood

Regulators Descend on Robinhood

Regulators Descend on Robinhood

The legend: Robin Hood famously steals from the rich to give to the poor. Today’s less chivalrous version: Robinhood is an app that encourages young, inexperienced investors to trade stocks in part to line its own pockets.

The pandemic has forced us all to pick up a few new hobbies to combat cabin fever—but for some young investors, we’re worried they may be picking up some bad habits. Digital trading platforms like Robinhood, Ally Invest and WeBull have skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic, especially with millennials and Gen Z-ers. These companies say their apps are aimed at making it easier and more enticing for young people to invest, and they often offer free trades and fractional shares that let newbie traders buy a stock for as little as a buck.

We’re not so sure a program that shoots off virtual confetti every time you buy or sell, as Robinhood’s app does, is the best option for serious investors. And it looks like regulators may agree: The company is being sued by Massachusetts state securities overseers who claim the app fails to protect customers and their assets and falls far short of the fiduciary standard broker-dealers are held to.

The feds have also taken notice. A failure to be transparent in how it makes money recently earned Robinhood a $65 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC alleges that until 2018, Robinhood failed to disclose profits from agreements with high-speed trading outfits, including Citadel Securities and Virtu. By sending Robinhood trades through these operators, which pay Robinhood for the privilege, the app is incentivized to encourage users to trade more often—thus increasing its own revenues—rather than securing the best price on each trade for its users.

These payments, known in the industry as “order flow,” made up Robinhood’s biggest revenue source as of October 2018, yet according to the SEC, the practice was excluded from a report on the app’s website titled, “How Robinhood Makes Money.” Customer-service reps were also instructed not to divulge the practice if customers asked about the company’s revenue streams.

Robinhood, while preparing for a potential IPO next year, neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, but they paid the $65 million penalty while noting that the practices “do not reflect Robinhood today.” The company also pledged to hire an outside consultant to review payments for order flow and follow its duty to execute trades in the best interests of its users.

Digital investment start-ups that offer lower barriers to entry, cheaper commissions and an entertaining user experience have a seductive appeal, especially for enterprising young people stuck at home. And we encourage teenagers, college students and all young people to explore the benefits of investing (and, especially, compounding). But treating investing as all-fun-and-no-cost games is a good way to find yourself on the wrong end of Robinhood’s sword.

Prepare Your Portfolio for 2021

Tax preparation may not seem like the most exciting way to ring in the new year, but it’s your final opportunity to take steps that can pay real dividends next year and beyond. So what are some tax-saving moves you can make? Here are five we’ve found valuable over the years for our clients as well as ourselves.

1. Consider Rebalancing

Conventional wisdom holds that investors should regularly rebalance the funds in their portfolios to reset to their original allocations. This may mean selling top performers and reinvesting the proceeds into positions that have become proportionally underrepresented, perhaps because they didn’t put up equally good numbers.

The Adviser Investments team takes a broader view: Unless your portfolio has significantly diverged from the original allocation, rebalancing may be unnecessary and more work than it’s worth. Our research shows little-to-no performance advantage in automatically rebalancing portfolio allocations every year. And that’s before considering that rebalancing includes costs that can lead to higher tax bills and transaction fees.

There aren’t any universal rules, and rebalancing might make sense for you. We recommend talking with your adviser to see if it’s something you should do this year.

2. Think About Tax-Loss Harvesting

Nobody likes to see numbers in red on the returns column, but those underwater positions aren’t always without value. If you sell shares at a price below what you paid for them, the losses can be used to offset other gains and income in your portfolio, reducing what you owe to Uncle Sam.

Even if you’re looking at a loss in a fund or position you consider a long-term winner, selling is still an option. Under the “wash-sale” rule, you can sell positions at a loss to offset some of your tax burden, and then repurchase the original position as long as you wait at least 30 days for the repurchase.

Who knows? You may even get to buy back shares at a lower price than what you initially paid. And note that the wash-sale rule also applies to shares acquired through reinvested income—so check your funds’ distribution dates.

Before using this maneuver, however, you should confirm that you’re not selling shares of a fund that you can’t replace. If a fund is closed to new investors and you sell your entire position, you won’t be able to buy back in. And remember, these tax tips are irrelevant for funds owned in tax-deferred retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs.

3. Give Yourself Some Flexibility

One strategy we utilize in some of our clients’ taxable accounts is putting income and capital gains distributions into a money market fund rather than automatically reinvesting the proceeds back into the funds that generated them.

Keeping this cash on hand gives us the flexibility to reinvest in the fund at a later date or, as part of a rebalancing strategy, use the cash to add to other funds we like that may have had an off year and are priced attractively.

4. Maximize Opportunities for Tax-Deferred Growth

401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement vehicles are a great way to keep your savings growing tax-free while you lower your taxable income. If you can swing it, contribute the maximum amounts allowable to each account every year.

Depending on your employer’s plan, you may be able to defer up to $19,500 in earnings into a 401(k) or 403(b) account in 2020. If you turn 50 before December 31, 2020, and your plan allows it, you can add an additional $6,500 “catch-up contribution.” For IRAs, the maximum contribution in 2020 is $6,000, plus a catch-up contribution of $1,000. (And these limits will be the same in 2021.)

For 401(k)s, you have to act by the end of the calendar year, while IRAs give you until April 15, 2021 to make your 2020 contributions. But sooner is better to give your tax-deferred money maximum time in the market to compound your gains.

5. Be Charitable

Year-end is a busy time for charitable giving. A few guidelines:

  • Don’t Cash Out; Give Assets Directly. From a tax standpoint, donating cash can be a bad idea. Rather than sending a check or selling assets and donating the proceeds, donating long-term appreciated assets directly to a charity can have tax advantages. You’ll usually get a tax deduction at full, fair-market value, and because you avoid realizing gains (taxed at either your income-tax rate or the long-term capital gains rate), you’ll be donating up to 40% more than if you sold the holding and contributed the proceeds.
  • Start Spring Cleaning Early. Donating clothing, furniture and kitchen or office supplies can do more than tidy up your home. Itemizing deductions on items given to charities can help you take a healthy bite out of your tax liabilities.
  • Make the Holidays Merry for Others. Feel generous or want to move into a lower tax bracket? You can give up to $15,000 to as many people as you want without gift tax implications. (Couples can give $30,000.) You are also entitled to pay tuition or medical costs for another person if the payment is sent directly to the billing party.
  • Pay for Higher Education. 529 college savings plans can be a great way to provide gifts to family members. If you can afford it, you can even circumvent the annual $15,000 gift limit to fund higher learning by using a special rule called “superfunding,” which allows you to contribute up to five times the annual tax-exempted gift limit (so up to $75,000) without triggering your lifetime gift or estate tax exclusion. (You can only “superfund” once every five years.) For a married couple, that superfunding can be as much as $150,000, which is a great way to start a newborn on the road to a fully funded private school, college or graduate school education.

Fine-tuning your portfolio now may help prevent headaches and tax bills come April. That said, restructuring a portfolio, moving assets and determining appropriate gift or charitable donations can all be tricky, which is why we recommend you consult with a professional tax or investment adviser before doing so. Give us a call. We’re happy to help.

Podcast: Discovering International Small-Caps

With the U.S. stock market hitting new records in 2020, do investors need to look beyond the border to find opportunities for profit? We think so. Simply put, smaller foreign companies aren’t on most investors’ radars, and therein lies an opportunity.

In our latest podcast, Director of Research Jeff DeMaso and Research Analyst Liz Laprade cover some of the hidden upside of small-cap stocks, including:

  • The expansive investment universe of small-cap foreign stocks
  • Increased capacity for outperformance under the right manager
  • The surprising risk profile of small-cap foreign stocks—they haven’t been as risky as you might guess

We think there’s more to foreign small-caps than meets the eye—click here to learn about the potential benefits of this under-explored sector.

Adviser Investments’ Market Takeaways

Between the election, the pandemic and its impact on corporate earnings, economic data and interest rates, there’s no shortage of hyperbolic headlines and provocative punditry in the financial media. Not here. In our Today’s Market Takeaways, members of our investment team provide timely videos that clearly and concisely explain what we’re seeing in the markets.

Recently, Liz Laprade spoke about Bitcoin’s 2020 surge and how it compares to gold, while Vice President Steve Johnson reflected on his wish list for 2021.

We hope you find them engaging and accessible, and please let us know if there are any topics you’d like to hear us address by sending an email to!

About Adviser Investments

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