SEC Chair Gensler: Agency is looking at retail brokerage apps, how they make money on trades

  • SEC is looking into how apps encourage more stock trading and then make money off the execution of those trades, new Chairman Gary Gensler told CNBC.
  • "There is a little bit of a conflict of interest," he said Friday, highlighting zero commissions and so-called payment for order flow.
  • Gensler said that as technology changes the way people interact with markets, regulations to protect investors need to keep up.

SEC Chairman Gary Gensler told CNBC on Friday the agency is looking into how commission-free retail brokerage apps encourage more stock trading and then make money off m the execution of those trades.

"There is a little bit of a conflict of interest," Gensler said on "Squawk Box," one day after testifying about this issue before House Financial Services Committee. "An app that says they have zero commissions is earning revenue on your trading through something called 'payment for order flow.' Someone is paying them for that order flow and paying them for that data."

Gensler said the issue comes down to the so-called gamification that apps use, such as "props, leaderboards, behavioral ways to get individuals to trade more," and how apps market their platforms.

Asked what should be done to change or regulate gamification and payment for order flow practices, Gensler said he's reserving judgment while the Securities and Exchange Commission seeks public comment at the matter.

However, he did say, "Disclosure alone may not do it."

In December, Robinhood agreed to pay a $65 million civil penalty, without admitting or denying SEC charges that the popular trading app deceived customers about how it makes money and failing to deliver the promised best execution of trades.

"One of Robinhood's selling points to customers was that trading was 'commission free,' but due in large part to its unusually high payment for order flow rates, Robinhood customers' orders were executed at prices that were inferior to other brokers' prices," the SEC said at the time, about a month before Robinhood became a central figure in the GameStop saga.

At the time, a Robinhood spokesperson said the firm is "fully transparent" in its communications with customers over its current revenue streams and has improved its best execution processes.

Gensler acknowledged that trading apps on smartphones have certainly brought new investors to stock trading and have given them greater access to markets. But he said that as technology changes the way people interact with markets, regulations to protect investors need to keep up.

Gensler was sworn in last month as President Joe Biden's choice to lead the SEC, which serves as Wall Street's watchdog. During the presidency of Barack Obama, Gensler ran the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates derivatives including futures, swaps, and certain kinds of options.

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