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Down $52,000 in a day: Furious Robinhood customers want payback following the app’s two day outage

March 5, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

Talk about stress.

Following an outage that spanned two days, Robinhood co-founders wrote in a Tuesday post that they were working as quickly as possible to address the issue. “We now understand the cause of the outage was stress on our infrastructure—which struggled with unprecedented load,” wrote co-founders and co-CEOs Baiju Bhatt and Vlad Tenev of the outage that spanned the majority of Monday’s trading hours, and a shorter, second one on Tuesday.

The company is reaching out to customers regarding compensation on a case-by-case basis. This compensation may include billing credits or other options, a Robinhood spokesperson said in separate statement.

Suffice to say Robinhood’s systems weren’t the only outlets feeling stressed, as customers were unable to use their accounts to trade during two of the most volatile trading days of the year.

“I had no idea what was going on, I thought the stock market crashed and the Robinhood app couldn’t handle it. I just didn’t know,” said Brandon Browne, a 27-year-old Robinhood user for the last year or so. Robinhood did not officially reach out to Browne via email until 3:16 p.m. about the outage that began at 9:33 a.m., leaving him to piece together the issue via Google or Twitter. Robinhood adds that it was updating users via Twitter as well as the website’s status page earlier in the day.

While Browne thankfully suffered no losses, he did miss out on a market rally that represented the large single-day point gain for the Dow Industrial Average and one that boosted the value of all companies on the S&P 500 by $1.1 trillion dollars. Browne had planned to buy shares of Facebook or perhaps Microsoft, which rallied about 2% and 5% respectively by Monday’s close. But the outage prevented that.

It was perhaps even more painful for 35-year-old Brad Finson, who had bought so-called put options—a bet that the market or a particular stock will fall. He had made a handsome on-paper-profit from the bet, and had wanted to liquidate part of the holdings on Monday.

“I wasn’t too nervous until I watched the single day increase in the stock market—while holding $113,000 worth of put options,” said Finson. “Literally the worst thing you could have. “

Unable to trade, Finson said his “account balance fell by $52,000” by Monday’s close. Adding to the frustrations: Finson had already put in a small order to sell a portion of his Boeing puts 15 minutes before the market open and received confirmation from Robinhood. About four hours later, as the app was struggling, and Robinhood informed Finson that the order had been cancelled.

As an olive branch, Robinhood told “Gold” members like Finson that they would get three months free membership—worth about $15, as a result of the outage—in addition to evaluating losses on a case-by-case basis.

But it’s too little too late for Finson, who recounted to Fortune his frustration trying to get information from Robinhood, or even speak to a real human being throughout the process. Interactions play out largely via email, with even the company’s customer service line directing users to digital forms.

He plans to sell his remaining put options when the prices rebound, and take what’s left to TD Ameritrade.

Fines and regulations

Stock-trading darling Robinhood, which was founded in 2013, had successfully sold itself to millions of users as a digital-native app for internet-savvy young traders. Generally mum on the numbers, the company says it has 10 million accounts up from six million in late 2018. Co-CEO Bhatt said the company was on the road to a public offering less than two years ago.

As Robinhood may be learning, one problem with those internet-savvy customers is that when things go wrong they know exactly how to vent their frustrations. The comments section of Robinhood’s Twitter page are besieged with furious calls for to compensate for missed trades or threatening lawsuits, often tagging the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

One Twitter user started an account calling for a potential class action lawsuit or arbitration from FINRA—a non government entity that regulates brokers and exchanges—that had amassed over 6,400 followers by Wednesday.

“We have been in touch with the firm and have been closely monitoring the situation,” a FINRA spokesperson said in an email. The Securities and Exchange Commission declined to comment.

While brokerage outages have happened happened in the past, most have only lasted minutes. Vanguard and Fidelity, for instance, both suffered minutes-long outages in late February due to surging trading volumes, and even that left a trail of infuriated customers.

Learning from the outage and preparing for continued high volumes, Fidelity alerted its users Tuesday that it had simplified the website and app. “To help you navigate during higher than usual market activity, we’ve streamlined your client experience for the things you do most,” it told consumers.

While Robinhood has sought to protect itself legally through user agreements that disavow responsibility for “temporary interruptions in service” and “extended interruptions due to failures beyond our control,” it is still liable for a fine under FINRA standards, says Daniel Labovitz, a managing member at Global Markets Advisory Group who advises broker dealers on securities laws.

Firms regulated by FINRA are required to maintain a kind of emergency plan called the Business Continuity Plan, and Robinhood’s outage could signal a failure to produce a well-formed one.

Given the magnitude and furor surrounding Robinhood’s outage, “FINRA will be eager to see what rules they have violated,” Labovitz says. The incident also raises questions about whether the company may face stiffer regulation going forward at a time when technology is increasingly becoming mission critical in the markets ecosystem. (Robinhood declined to comment.)

“Anytime a firm suffers an outage, there’s a question over whether and how it could have been prevented,” says Tyler Gellasch, executive director of Healthy Markets Association. “Regulators have committed to ensuring that some firms that serve key roles in market infrastructure—such as stock exchanges—do what they can to prevent failures, but what are brokers doing? And should they be doing more to ensure they don’t fail?”  

Reputation

Robinhood is facing mounting pressure to keep customers happy as competitors have raced to match its once innovative offering. Robinhood marketed itself on zero commission trading, many competitors quickly followed suit. Robinhood introduced fractional shares trading in December. Fidelity rolled out their version this winter while Schwab announced its own.

It’s an increasingly challenging space. All around brokerages are consolidating to stay competitive: Charles Schwab acquired TD Ameritrade in November while Morgan Stanley acquired E-Trade. Interactive Brokers Founder Thomas Peterffy meanwhile told CNBC in February that he is open to a merger.

“Our team has spent the last two days evaluating and addressing this issue. We worked as quickly as possible to restore service, but it took us a while. Too long,” the Co-CEOs continued in their note. “We take our responsibility to you and your money seriously.”

But it won’t be easy. Online, customers are asking for recompense for lost trades and opportunities—but it will be inherently difficult to make those calculations and judgement calls, says Labovitz—especially from a legal perspective. How, after all, do you prove a given person had the intention to trade a given stock at a specific time when an app was completely down for hours and left little to no paper trail, given the number of trades a Robinhood trader may execute today?

As rumors fly about a potential IPO and the Robinhood ages to a point where onlookers are wondering when early investors may find an exit, it’s not hard to wonder if the outage another dent in Robinhood’s often challenged valuation.

Worse, the outage comes on the heels of other recent snafus, including a misfire on the rollout of high yield accounts and a 2019 FINRA fine. And as public markets begin to take a more skeptical eye at unicorns, investors may rightly wonder: does Robinhood’s purported $7.6 billion hold up?

“They are—up until this week at least—a unicorn,” said Larry Tabb. “We aren’t sure what the valuations will be now.”

This story has been updated to reflect Robinhood’s response to the outage, and clarified to include context on the lengths of the outages.

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