F-Squared to pay USD35m to settle SEC charges over false performance claims
F-Squared Investments has agreed to pay USD35 million and admit wrongdoing to settle SEC charges that it defrauded investors through false performance advertising about its flagship product.
The SEC separately charged the firm’s co-founder and former CEO Howard Present with making false and misleading statements to investors as the public face of F-Squared.
According to the SEC’s order instituting a settled administrative proceeding against Massachusetts-based F-Squared, which is the largest marketer of index products using exchange-traded funds (ETFs), the firm began receiving signals from a third-party data provider in September 2008 indicating when to buy or sell an investment. The signals were based on an algorithm, and F-Squared and Present used the signals to create a model portfolio of sector ETFs that could be rebalanced periodically as the signals changed. They named the new product “AlphaSector” and launched the first index a month later. AlphaSector’s indexes quickly became the firm’s largest revenue source, and F-Squared went from losing money to becoming a highly profitable investment manager.
The SEC alleges that while marketing AlphaSector into the largest active ETF strategy in the market, F-Squared falsely advertised a successful seven-year track record for the investment strategy based on the actual performance of real investments for real clients. In reality, the algorithm was not even in existence during the seven years of purported performance success. The data used in F-Squared’s advertising was actually derived through backtesting, which is the application of a quantitative model to historical market data to generate a hypothetical performance during a prior period. F-Squared and Present specifically advertised the investment strategy as “not backtested.” Furthermore, the hypothetical data contained a substantial performance calculation error that inflated the results by approximately 350 percent.
“Investors must be able to trust that performance advertisements are accurate,” says Andrew Ceresney, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “F-Squared has admitted that it misled its clients over a number of years about the existence and success of its core strategy.”
According to the SEC’s complaint against Present filed in federal court in Boston, he was responsible for F-Squared’s advertising materials that were often posted on the company website and sent to clients and prospective clients. Present also was responsible for the descriptions of AlphaSector in its filings with the SEC, and he certified the accuracy of those filings. F-Squared and Present made the false and misleading statements about AlphaSector from September 2008 to September 2013. The SEC alleges that they claimed AlphaSector was based on an investment strategy that had been used to invest client assets since April 2001. Yet Present knew that the algorithm was not finalized until late summer 2008 when he devised rules for turning the signals into a model ETF portfolio and directed an assistant to calculate hypothetical returns for the portfolio going back to April 2001.
The SEC further alleges that the F-Squared analyst who calculated the backtested AlphaSector performance inadvertently applied the buy/sell signals to the week preceding any ETF price change that the signals were based on. The mistake carried the model portfolio’s backtested buy and sell decisions back in time one week, enabling the model to buy an ETF just before the price rose and sell an ETF just before the price fell. The SEC alleges that the analyst tried to explain this possible calculation error to Present in late September 2008, yet F-Squared went on to advertise the inflated data for the next five years and overstated that AlphaSector significantly outperformed the S&P 500 from April 2001 to September 2008.
“We allege that not only did F-Squared and Present attract clients to this investment strategy by touting a track record they presented as real when it was merely hypothetical, but the hypothetical calculations also were substantially inflated,” says Julie M Riewe, co-chief of the Enforcement Division’s Asset Management Unit.
F-Squared consented to the entry of the order finding that it violated Sections 204, 206(1), 206(2), 206(4), and 207 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and Rules 204-2(a)(16), 206(4)-1(a)(5), 206(4)-7, and 206(4)-8. The order also finds that F-Squared aided and abetted and caused certain mutual funds sub-advised by F-Squared to violation Section 34(b) of the Investment Company Act of 1940. F-Squared acknowledged that its conduct violated federal securities laws, and agreed to cease and desist from committing or causing violations of these provisions. F-Squared agreed to retain an independent compliance consultant and pay disgorgement of USD30 million and a penalty of USD5 million.
The SEC’s complaint against Present alleges that he violated Sections 206(1), 206(2), 206(4), and 207 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and Rule 206(4)-8.