Schwab Hidden Fees: $187 Million Penalty For Intelligent Portfolios Robo-Advisor

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Schwab has agreed to pay a $187 million SEC settlement due to being sneaky about the fees charged by their robo-advisor product, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (SIP). Schwab used “free” but quietly forced its own customers to hold a lot of cash in an high-cost form where they can skim off fees (and you get paid less interest). It was a relatively open secret in the financial planning industry, as noted in my own Intelligent Portfolios review:

Schwab makes a ton of money on your idle cash, and it is NOT an accident that they force you to own cash in their automated portfolios.

However, the details of this SEC settlement show that their behavior was even worse than I initially thought. As explained by Matt Levine in Money Stuff, Schwab literally decided how much profit they wanted first, and then worked their model asset allocations around that number. The technical version:

Each of SIP’s model portfolios held between 6% and 29.4% of clients’ assets in cash. The amount of cash that each SIP model portfolio contained was pre-set so that Respondents’ affiliate bank would earn at least a minimum amount of revenue from the spread on the cash by loaning out the money. …

In order to offer SIP without charging an advisory fee, Schwab management decided that the SIP portfolios would collectively hold an average of at least 12.5% of their assets in cash. To meet that goal, management set the exact amount of cash in each of SIP’s model portfolios, with the most aggressive portfolio containing 6% cash and the most conservative portfolio 29.4%, based in large part on its analysis that Schwab Bank would make a minimum amount of revenue at these levels. Management then provided these pre-set cash allocations to CSIA. In building the SIP model portfolios, CSIA treated the cash allocations provided by management as constraints and did not alter or adjust the cash allocations in any way. …

On February 18, 2015, weeks before the SIP launch, two articles were published in the media that were critical of SIP, claiming that the drag from the high cash allocations was a hidden cost of the program. In reaction to these articles, Schwab management directed that the SWIA ADV brochure be re-written, and that a public relations campaign be launched to explain the SIP cash allocations. …

While the ADV brochures disclosed that Schwab Bank earned income from the cash allocation for each investment strategy, SWIA’s and CSIA’s ADV brochures stated that the cash allocations in the SIP portfolios were “set based on a disciplined portfolio construction methodology designed to balance performance with risk management appropriate for a client’s goal, investing time frame, and personal risk tolerance, just as with other Schwab managed products.” This was false and misleading because the cash allocations were actually pre-set in order to reach minimum revenue targets for the Respondents.

Here it is more accurately summarized in this Reuters quote:

“Schwab claimed that the amount of cash in its robo-adviser portfolios was decided by sophisticated economic algorithms meant to optimize its clients’ returns when in reality it was decided by how much money the company wanted to make,” SEC enforcement chief Gurbir Grewal said.

Here’s what Schwab says in their press release:

We are proud to have built a product that allows investors to elect not to pay an advisory fee in return for allowing us to hold a portion of the proceeds in cash, and we do not hide the fact that our firm generates revenue for the services we provide.

Really, you don’t hide the fact? Let’s look at your product page now as of 6/15/2022. This is what you see without clicking further:

We believe cash is a key component of an investment portfolio. Based on your risk profile, a portion of your portfolio is placed in an FDIC-insured deposit at Schwab Bank. Some cash alternatives outside of the program pay a higher yield.

What else is not mentioned on their product page? The actual interest rate paid. The APY is not mentioned anywhere on that page, even through a link or fine print. You must go searching for this link, where you will find that SIP actually holds special “Sweep Shares” of the Schwab Government Money Fund (SWGXX) with a annual expense ratio of 0.44% and SEC yield of 0.38% as of 6/15/22. In comparison, Vanguard’s default cash sweep is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund (VMFXX) with a net expense ratio of 0.11% and SEC yield of 0.76% as of 6/15/22.

If you click further, you find their new fine print:

Assume a $100,000 account with a 10% Cash Allocation ($10,000), which would be a moderate—aggressive investment portfolio allocation. Using market interest rates from the first quarter of 2022, Schwab Bank earned about 1.03% on an annual basis on the cash it invested net of what it paid to clients in the Program. Schwab Bank would have received about $103 ($10,000 x 1.03%) on that cash deposit, annualized, which equates to 0.103% or 10.3 basis points ($103/$100,000) of the total client investment of $100,000.

However, the true cost to investors is not just the fees that Scwhab gets. Cash is not necessarily ideal for long-term portfolios. By dictating cash, you ignore other higher-yielding and arguably more appropriate options like their own Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF (SCHO, 0.04% ER, 2.60% SEC yield) and Schwab Short-Term Bond Index Fund (SWSBX, 0.06% ER, 2.98% SEC yield).

Schwab customers are at this very moment, losing significant money from their high-cost cash drag instead of a low-cost, high-quality money market and/or short-term bond fund. Schwab customers should note that this quiet profit via cash holding motive runs throughout the company. The Schwab Bank “High Yield” Investor Savings account pays 0.05% APY. Uninvested bank sweep cash in your Schwab brokerage and retirement accounts pays a measly 0.01% APY.

I would bet that if you did a poll of all Schwab IP customers and asked them about it, a majority would have no idea about this arrangement.

Bottom line. After reading the details of this SEC settlement, the fact that Schwab put profit first and the actual design of the product second is the most offensive. I’d much rather you sell me a great product at a fair price. Schwab’s reputation is now lower in my mind. They have some good products, but I would not recommend Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (or any Schwab managed product based on their behavior here) for my family or friends.

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  1. Never understood why they can pay a baby fine and admit no wrongdoing.

    If I go to a store and steal a candy, can I pay back 10 cents and admit no wrongdoing.

    Unless it becomes a felony for these financial firms, the will continue these kinds of behavior because the consequences are minimal

  2. f u schwab !!!

  3. Michael Defoe says

    I use Schwab for my primary bill-paying bank (90% of expenses go on points cards, paid off monthly) and have a couple small IRAs through them. But this really does break some trust I had. I played around with Betterment and Wealthfront and I’ve never had a bad experience with Betterment.

    What do you use?

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