Wall Street banks fined $549 million for not backing up messaging app histories

Wells Fargo alone was fined $200 million by the SEC and CFTC.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

Federal regulatory agencies have fined 11 financial institutions a combined $549 million for using “off-channel” messaging apps (WhatsApp, iMessage, Signal and text messages) for conversations about trades and other business. Securities laws require investment firms and banks to preserve communications records and ensure employees only carry out business through authorized channels. “The firms did not maintain or preserve the substantial majority of these off-channel communications, in violation of the federal securities laws,” the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) wrote in a statement today.

The Wall Street firms were fined over half a billion dollars in penalties for using messaging apps instead of email, approved messaging platforms or other easily archived channels. Firms penalized by the SEC include Wells Fargo ($125 million), BNP Paribas ($35 million), SG Americas Securities ($35 million), BMO Capital Markets ($25 million), Mizuho Securities ($25 million), Houlihan Lokey Capital ($15 million), Moelis & Company ($10 million), Wedbush Securities ($10 million) and SMBC Nikko Securities America ($9 million). Meanwhile, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) fined Wells Fargo ($75 million), BNP Paribas ($75 million), Société Générale ($75 million) and Bank of Montreal ($35 million).

“Recordkeeping failures such as those here undermine our ability to exercise effective regulatory oversight, often at the expense of investors,” said Sanjay Wadhwa, the SEC’s Deputy Director of Enforcement. “The Commission’s message could not be more clear — recordkeeping and supervision requirements are fundamental, and registrants that fail to comply with these core regulatory obligations do so at their own peril,” said CFTC Director of Enforcement Ian McGinley.

Federal regulators said all firms admitted to the facts about unapproved communications in agreeing to the penalties. “As described in the SEC’s orders, the firms admitted that from at least 2019, their employees often communicated through various messaging platforms on their personal devices, including iMessage, WhatsApp, and Signal, about the business of their employers,” the SEC wrote in a statement. “The firms did not maintain or preserve the substantial majority of these off-channel communications, in violation of the federal securities laws. By failing to maintain and preserve required records, certain of the firms likely deprived the Commission of these off-channel communications in various SEC investigations.”

Both government agencies stressed that the problem was pervasive and not limited to entry-level employees and junior staff. “The failures involved employees at multiple levels of authority, including supervisors and senior executives,” the SEC said.