Some investment advisory firms are changing their tune on taking emergency funding meant for small businesses.
The largely phone- and email-based firms, which cater to millionaire clients, took coronavirus impact funding under the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and advised their clients to do so in newsletters, online articles and webinars.
Now, in light of new guidance from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Small Business Administration — as well as an increasingly angry public — some of the companies are rushing to give back the money. Others won't say whether they took it in the first place.
Some of the investment advisory firms took PPP funding not because they were facing layoffs or economic risks due to coronavirus impacts but because they were pursuing newly available government laws, regulations and tax codes to their best financial advantage, senior banking sources told NBC News.
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There are nearly 13,000 registered investment advisory firms, or RIAs, across the country, and PPP has been a hot topic for the industry since the program began. The firms typically provide financial services, such as investing and tax advice, to clients with over $1 million in personal assets. With much of the business conducted remotely, operations can continue largely unimpeded under stay-at-home orders.
A recent article describing a webinar hosted by two investment firms included advice on how the companies could qualify for the loans.
"Advisors can tap the PPP" for loans that "present an important opportunity for all RIAs to consider," reported Think Advisor, a popular news site for investment managers.
Of the top 20 registered investment advisory firms, three told NBC News that they didn't apply. Sixteen didn't respond to requests for comment.
One of the top firms, Moneta Group of St. Louis, which handles $24 billion in investments, said it got a PPP loan for an undisclosed amount "to protect Moneta from having to furlough people at a time when our clients need us most," Susan Gerard, Moneta's chief marketing officer, wrote in an email.
However, Gerard told NBC News on April 20 that the company wasn't considering laying off any of its 300 employees.
In March, the company tweeted a screenshot showing 11 employees from one team on a Zoom conference call. "Working from home but staying connected," the tweet read.
The firm, which serves mainly high-net-worth individuals, posted an FAQ on its website about how the program works and encouraged customers to "reach out to your Moneta team at any time to discuss your specific situation."
On Thursday, the company notified NBC News that it had decided not to take the funds "to ensure they reach the hands of other businesses in more need."
Other advisory firms have decided to keep the money, or they ultimately turned it down for different reasons.
Publicly traded Manning & Napier Inc. of Rochester, New York, disclosed in an SEC filing, made before the new ruling, that it had applied for a PPP loan in early April. The investment management company said the money was "intended to help support payroll costs and rent expense," but it then announced that it was declining the funds.
"Manning & Napier did not receive any funds because we rescinded our loan application immediately following the updated SBA guidance," company spokeswoman Nicole Brunner wrote in an email.
The incidents are another category of concern in the public debate about which companies deserve to receive funds — and whether it is acceptable for them to have applied for emergency funding at all, even with the belief that they were following all available laws and eligibility guidance.
NBC News spoke with business leaders and a dozen banking executives familiar with the PPP and reviewed initial government disclosure records, which indicate that some financial adviser businesses barely affected by the coronavirus applied for funding under the guidance of their business managers, advisers and tax attorneys.
It's a dynamic that frustrates even some Wall Street veterans.
"I feel there should be retribution back at them. There should be a punitive tax rate for anyone that took the money and made money," said Gary Cohn, former chief economic adviser to President Donald Trump and former president of Goldman Sachs.
"We've been taught it's OK in America to fight for every penny, it's OK to expense things, to use the tax code to your advantage. But those are in normal operating environments," he said.
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Ronald Kruszewski, the chairman and CEO of Stifel Financial, a wealth management and investment bank, said the program's rules for which companies can apply need to be strengthened.
"Just because a business, whether it's an RIA or anyone else, can technically apply for a PPP loan doesn't mean it should," Kruszewski said.
"Going forward, it's imperative the government tighten up the program so anyone applying for a new loan must demonstrate an actual, not a perceived, financial hardship. Second, any PPP recipient asking for loan forgiveness must be held to that very same standard," he said.
The new SEC guidance says that "as a fiduciary under federal law, you must make full and fair disclosure to your clients of all material facts relating to the advisory relationship."
For instance, if the PPP loan was needed to pay the salaries of staff members performing advisory duties or if the firm was having trouble living up to its contractual commitments, the firm should reveal "the nature, amounts and effects of such assistance."
The agency didn't provide a comment upon request to NBC News.
Answering a slightly different question, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the industry's private self-regulator, had said earlier in April that investment advisers wouldn't need to disclose the forgiveness of their PPP loans.
The new SEC guidance is the latest example of the evolving information that companies seeking PPP loans continue to receive. Over the past two weeks, restaurant chains, pharmaceutical companies and a slew of other large businesses have announced that they are turning down the funding after the SBA said the money was intended for smaller companies, not public ones with actual or potential sources of liquidity.