Regulators have asked online wealth advisor Betterment to clarify some details surrounding its new checking and savings accounts just hours after they were launched.
The digital wealth-management start-up unveiled new accounts that offer as much as a 2.69% annual yield. But Betterment was asked to provide more specifics to one of its regulators almost immediately after it went public Tuesday, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
While the content of questions from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, is unclear, Betterment had been in contact with the agency, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, in the month ahead of Tuesday’s launch, one person said. As of Wednesday, the company had not changed any product details, or how it was labeled.
The double take from watchdogs highlights the complexity and uncharted territory of launching new bank-like products in a highly regulated industry. Betterment is not a bank — it is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission as a broker-dealer and is a member of the FINRA. It’s also a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, known as SIPC.
“As a policy, Betterment does not comment on regulatory matters,” a Betterment spokesperson told CNBC.
To launch bank-like services Betterment has to partner with banks that actually hold customers’ deposits and have FDIC-insurance. This is a common set-up for fintech companies that offer financial services, but don’t have a bank charter themselves. Customers’ deposits for Betterment will be held at Citi, Barclays and Valley National. The checking-like accounts are insured up to $250,000 by the FDIC, while savings accounts are insured up to $1 million, according to Betterment.
The Securities and Exchange Commission and FINRA declined CNBC’s request for comment.
Financial services regulators are on high alert after popular millennial stock trading app Robinhood botched the launch of its own checking account last year. Robinhood said it would launch a product with an eye-popping, industry-leading 3% interest rate. The start-up had not contacted the SEC or SIPC ahead of the launch, the head of SIPC, Stephen Harbeck, told CNBC at the time. Just a day later, Robinhood walked back the product, and said it was re-naming and re-launching it. A new version of the product is still in the works, according to a Robinhood spokesperson.
In response to the Robinhood launch, U.S. senators sent a letter to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton saying they were “concerned” that fintech companies may be dodging regulatory scrutiny. They asked U.S. financial watchdogs how they plan to police start-ups that are moving into banks’ territory.
“We would appreciate an update on how the SEC, FDIC, and SIPC carefully monitor fintechs who, intentionally or not, blur financial products for competitive advantage,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Robust competition should not come at the expense of customer clarity and every effort should be made not to mislead customers.”
Others fintech companies have launched similar products in recent months. Wealthfront launched a cash account in February, has attracted $1 billion in deposits since, and recently raised the interest rate on their checking account to 2.57%. Fintech start-ups SoFi and Acorns have debit-like accounts, too.
There are a few caveats to Betterment’s interest rate. The higher 2.69% APR is only available if you sign up for the checking account too, and is only guaranteed through the end of this year, according to the company’s website. Without the promotional offer, the APR on the savings account is 2.43%. The APR is also “a variable rate” and may change at any time. CEO Jon Stein told CNBC that as partner banks adjust for the Federal Reserve’s widely expected interest rate cut, he would “expect” Betterment’s rate to readjust, too.