Power

Markets are in turmoil. How do trading apps react?

Coronavirus stock sell-offs are stressing some fintech startups. But they all want customers to stay calm.

Fintech apps on a phone

Robinhood had a rough start to the week. What happens if the markets don't calm down anytime soon?

Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images

Picture this: As the market plummets 7% amid fear-soaked volatility, your extremely popular investment app goes down — for the third time in a week. You've already been sued for the last screwups. Forget bad: This is catastrophic.

And so, Robinhood's week began.


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As the effects of coronavirus reverberate through financial markets, Robinhood's failures have thrown a spotlight on new investment apps and services. If they don't work during a time of crisis, they could find themselves in hot water with customers, regulators or both. A lawsuit filed against Robinhood is attempting to gain class-action status. In a statement last week, a spokesperson for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which regulates brokers, said that it was in touch with Robinhood and "closely monitoring the situation."

"We know this interruption was frustrating for our customers – especially after last week and on a day that trading was halted market-wide," a Robinhood spokesperson said in a statement. "Our platform is now fully operational and we're working hard to improve our service during these historic and volatile market conditions." Last week, it blamed outages on many factors, including "highly volatile and historic market conditions; record volume; and record account signups."

In a survey of investment app startups contacted by Protocol, companies unsurprisingly were very confident in the robustness of the systems they had in place. (Citing cataclysm, many executives could not be pulled away from their work today.)

Betterment's director of investing Adam Grealish said the company had seen some increased login activity in recent weeks but nothing that had stressed its systems. With the exception of a brief pause earlier today when the S&P 500 stopped trading for 15 minutes due to market conditions, trading has been uninterrupted. He said the company, which just boasted crossing 500,000 users, is prepared for volatility.

"In terms of the technology piece, we stress test our technology on load, on trading volume," Grealish said. "We're constantly doing platform improvements to that end with the ultimate goal of having a stable product in calm and choppier markets."

When Betterment's automated systems detect that there are big swings in the market or of particular securities, alerts warn its team of human investors that it's time to take a look. It doesn't stop or initiate trades, it just says "you should probably start looking at this and understand what's going on," Grealish said. Betterment clarified in a fact-checking email that its team "is always closely monitoring, especially, in a time like this!"

It should be noted that Betterment was criticized for halting trading on its app for 2.5 hours following the UK's June 2016 vote to leave the European Union. It was also separately fined $400,000 by FINRA for rule violations.

In a statement, Betterment's robo-adviser competitor Wealthfront also told Protocol that everything was totally fine: "Our ecosystem is operating exactly the way we intended it to in a climate like this, and we're seeing the behavior we expected from clients."

So did a spokesperson for the cuddly investment app Acorns, who said that the company "does not anticipate any outages related to market volatility."

A Wealthfront spokesperson suggested that, as with Robinhood, volatility might be spurring signups: "From a new signup perspective, when the market began to drop the last week of February, we saw a spike in new investment account opens."

But Grealish said that Betterment's clients haven't been engaging in any kind of mass sell-offs and are, if anything, "looking to deploy capital opportunistically."

"We've seen, actually, last week ad hoc deposits increase over what we normally see," he added. "So it suggests that our customers are taking an opportunity to add money to their longer-term goals, their retirement goals, things like this — money that was sitting in cash before."

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Still, top of mind right now for many of these apps seems to be customer communication.

Stash's CEO has sent out a pair of messages to customers via email and in-app notifications, including one this morning explaining the effects of market volatility like a straight-talking high school teacher. Betterment pushed out an extremely simple explainer with possible actions from Grealish in-app. (Tip No. 1? "Do … nothing! The act of staying put is often the best thing an investor can do.") And members of SoFi Invest received a notification warning them that market volatility could lead to stoppages.

Indeed, all the apps have their own ways of saying the same thing: Calm down. Don't freak out. Don't pull your money out of our investing service!

"The behind-the-scenes conversations are really focused on educating our investors and preventing them from panic selling and regretting that decision later," said the Acorns spokesperson.
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