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SEC accelerates inquiry into gamification of trading on sites like Robinhood

August 27, 2021, 7:48 PM UTC

A top Wall Street regulator is officially taking a deeper look at the gamification of trading.

On Friday, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission asked for public comment within the next 30 days on how brokerages, wealth managers, and other financial-technology companies use so-called digital engagement practices like behavioral prompts, specified marketing, and gamelike features on their platforms.

“While these new technologies can bring us greater access and product choice, they also raise questions as to whether we as investors are appropriately protected when we trade and get financial advice,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said in a statement Friday. “In many cases, these features may encourage investors to trade more often, invest in different products, or change their investment strategy.”

The move is far from an indication that the regulator will end up pursuing new rules around such practices. Requests for comments are commonplace from the SEC. But if the regulator does eventually move forward with a rule proposal, this would mark the first step of what figures to be a months—if not years—long process to develop new standards around some of the very issues that came to a head earlier this year with the sudden rise, and even more rapid decline, of meme stocks like GameStop and AMC Entertainment.

Gensler has spoken out about concerns related to the use of predictive data analytics in financial technology before. In May, for instance, the SEC chair equated the technology to how Netflix recommends movies based on users’ streaming histories or how a fitness app nudges someone to exercise. But in the case of financial technology companies, the outcomes could be far more serious.

Individual investors have been well documented to struggle the more often they trade. A study from researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business that was released earlier this year found that active investors saw 50% higher levels of volatility over 20-year periods than investors who took a wait-and-see approach to their portfolios. But concerns about gamification truly emerged on the national stage in the summer of 2020 when a college student from the Chicago suburbs named Alex Kearns killed himself believing that he had owed nearly hundreds of thousands of dollars because of a complicated options trade he had placed on Robinhood. The incident set off a wave of backlash, with many critics and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., asking why Kearns was allowed to trade such products to begin with. (In the wake of Kearns’s death, Robinhood made a number of changes to who can trade options on its platform.)

“As gamelike features become more prevalent on online trading platforms, it’s more important now than ever that we study the impacts of gamification,” said Rep. Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat whose home district represents part of the town where Kearns was from, at a congressional hearing in July. “Robinhood continues to function like a virtual casino gamified to harness human psychology—where market makers are the house—designed to drive frequent, short duration, roulette-like trades, ready to extract fast money from investors against their best interest.”

While Robinhood has received the brunt of the public blowback about gamification, the SEC’s request for comment seems to call into question other practices like integrated social networking and leaderboards that are used by brokerages including eToro and Social Finance, or SoFi.

Guy Hirsch, a U.S. managing director for Israel-based eToro, said in a statement that the brokerage “welcomes any opportunity to engage with regulators” on how to best balance retail investor protections and “an acknowledgment” that the increased volume of retail participation in the markets should be encouraged. “Overall, we celebrate the fact that more people are taking an interest in investing,” Hirsch said. “However, we must not underestimate the knowledge of these retail investors.”

SoFi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev told Congress in the aftermath of the meme stock blowup that the now publicly traded brokerage’s “appealing, simple platform” may have been built to make investing easier, but it was not done to make it a game. The company has made a series of changes to its platform over the past year to address some of the gamification concerns, nonetheless, including eliminating the confetti animation that burst onto users’ screens when they made their first trades.

“Increased retail participation in our capital markets is unequivocally a good thing, and we are happy to see the SEC recognize those benefits in its request for information,” Robinhood said in a statement shared with Fortune. “Policymakers have for decades strived to increase retail participation. Robinhood has made it possible for millions of Americans of all backgrounds and socioeconomic classes to invest for the first time, with the opportunity to build wealth over the long term through a simple, accessible, and welcoming platform. We look forward to engaging with the SEC as it reviews broker-dealers’ digital engagement practices.”

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