The federal government’s multibillion-dollar aid program to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic prompted outrage after billions went to public companies while mom-and-pop businesses were sidelined.
Now, another group of recipients is being scrutinized for taking the money: independent wealth management firms, some of which manage billions of dollars on behalf of affluent Americans. Their fees, which are typically 1 percent, can bring in tens of million annually regardless of market fluctuations.
The initial $349 billion allocated in April for the Paycheck Protection Program went quickly, prompting Congress to approve an additional $310 billion. But some business owners found the guidelines for accepting the money confusing or too restrictive.
Now, a divide is growing between advisory firms that took the money and those that declined because of ethical concerns.
The issue is more than a tempest in a teapot. Some firms could lose millions in fees if their clients start pulling their wealth out.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, which has oversight of these advisory firms, has recommended that they disclose receiving the loans as a material event that their clients need to know about. Some critics say that the firms should go further and discuss with their clients why they took the relief money, and that clients should be pushing for more transparency.
Two matters are under scrutiny. The first is a firm’s solvency, because the recipient had to attest to needing the money to survive the pandemic. If a firm is not well run, clients should be aware, because their wealth is at stake. The second are the ethics of the principals of any firm that might have applied for a loan the firm did not need.
“We didn’t think it was very credible that these firms actually needed the money,” said Gary Ribe, the chief investment officer of Accretive Wealth Partners, which manages $130 million and did not apply a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program. “Getting it out of an abundance of caution — that didn’t seem credible, either.”
But advisory firms that took the money have been pushing back, saying that the action was legal and that there was enough money to go around, although many of them received the money in the first wave of bailout loans, when many of the neediest and smallest businesses were shut out.
The firms that took loans also accuse their critics of hindsight bias: The market may be back to pre-pandemic levels now, but that did not seem obvious when the S&P 500 fell 12.5 percent in March and was down 20 percent for the first quarter.
“We expected there to be a little pushback when we applied for this, but when we were having the discussion in March, our thinking was, ‘We have no idea what is happening,’” said Barry Ritholtz, chairman and chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management, which oversees $1.3 billion.
Mr. Ritholtz, a financial commentator on Bloomberg Television, would not discuss the size of the loan. He said the firm had applied for it only to cover the salaries of about half of its 32 employees who served in support roles.
Dynasty Financial Partners, which has more than $40 billion under management, oversees a network of 46 affiliated advisory firms that maintain their own businesses and S.E.C. registrations. At least 11 of those firms applied for relief under the Paycheck Protection Program, said Jonathan Morris, the firm’s chief legal and governance officer.
“They’re all small businesses,” Mr. Morris said. “We don’t own them. They make their own individual decisions.”
Dynasty did offer to connect its network of affiliated firms with a bank it uses in St. Petersburg, Fla., where it is based, but Mr. Morris said the company had also helped about 100 clients apply for the paycheck loans.
The program was created as part of the CARES Act when the economic impact of the coronavirus was first becoming apparent. It was meant to provide quick support to businesses to help maintain their payrolls.
In the initial rush, larger firms with more resources were able to get first in line for the loans, squeezing out smaller business. Large chains like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Hospitality were taken to task for requesting money that some felt should have gone to local restaurants. After a public outcry, those companies and dozens of others returned the money.
Unlike restaurants and shops, or even small professional services firms like law offices and consultants, wealth managers did not have an interruption in their revenue. They deduct their fees quarterly from their clients’ accounts regardless of whether the market is up or down. This discrepancy has been at the heart of the debate, particularly when firms have been slow to disclose receiving a loan or have changed their reasons.
But pressure has mounted for wealth management firms to disclose whether they received aid, said Amit Singh, a corporate securities partner at Stradling, a law firm.
“Disclosing the loan doesn’t necessarily say your business was terrible,” he said. “Even if it may not be a legal obligation to disclose what you might ultimately need it for, it will be bad politically not to.”
Mr. Ritholtz said his firm had a solid reason for taking the loan. Revenue was down about 12 percent in the first quarter, but he had been thinking longer term when he applied. “It wasn’t about the revenue drop in the April billing cycle,” he said. “It was about how bad does this get in the fourth quarter and in 2021.”
Brian Hamburger, a lawyer who represents independent investment advisers, said he had warned firms applying for paycheck loans to expect blowback, which came more quickly than he had expected.
“I think a lot of the criticism was brought on by the firms themselves who took the money,” Mr. Hamburger said. “A lot of those firms leading into the pandemic talked about their economic might and that they were running such a great business. They’ve opened themselves up to a lot of criticism.”
Citywire, a publication that covers the advisory industry, has been publishing almost daily updates on the firms that have disclosed that they received a loan or quietly filed amendments to their regulatory statements.
Advisory firms that took a loan are faced with what to do with the money now that most of the market losses from March have been erased. They have three choices: Ask for the loan to be forgiven, if they used the money for payroll, health care and other related business expenses; pay it back at a low 1 percent interest rate; or return it.
Dynasty is not mandating how its advisers handle the money. “It’s going to be up to the individual firms,” Mr. Morris said. “We don’t dictate what they do.”
But many firms that did not apply for the money — or pulled their applications once the market began to improve — said clients ought to ask advisers for more disclosure around taking the money. They argue that a fee-based advisory firm should not have needed the money unless it was just starting out.
Mr. Ritholtz said he along with his firm and its chief executive, Joshua M. Brown, who writes in a blog called The Reformed Broker, were well enough known that their clients had heard their rationale already through tweets, blog posts and television appearances.
At Dynasty, each firm maintains its own regulatory filings, so it’s up to those advisers to make note of the loan.
“The S.E.C. has provided guidance, but it’s not mandated,” Mr. Morris said. “The S.E.C. said where you needed the money to continue to employ portfolio managers, you’d want to disclose it, but where you were using it for administrative personnel, you may not need to disclose it.”
That, though, is the kind of logic that critics say investors need to push back on. “Some firms are going to dance on a pin and say it was for support staff, not investment staff, but money is fungible,” Mr. Ribe said.
Whatever their initial rationale for applying for the government aid, firms need to stick with it, Mr. Hamburger said, or their clients might have reason to worry about their sincerity.
“If a firm is going to take that money, there should be no shame in taking it, but they’ve got to own it,” he said. “They can’t sit there and posture and change that characterization of that benefit.”
Returns always fluctuate, but trust, after all, should be the reason someone picks an adviser.