Gary Spillane holds more than $1 million in his family’s assets at Vanguard. His is one of many high-net-worth brokerage accounts at the Malvern-based investment giant.
But on Monday, July 19, Spillane logged on to sell 3,000 shares of a newly listed company, Evolv Technologies Holding, the first day it began trading.
Spillane got an online account message, saying his shares weren’t available. He called Vanguard twice and left messages, to no avail.
“I missed out on about $9,000 worth of profit,” he estimated. Spillane, of Bucks County and the former owner of a building products business, unsuccessfully ran for Pennsylvania state representative in 2020.
Spillane said he was denied his long-awaited transaction, which he said was never resolved to his satisfaction. Spillane’s complaint is one of many customer service quirks that Vanguard has grappled with as it has grown to manage more than $7 trillion in assets. Vanguard over the years has vaulted into the top ranks alongside BlackRock, T. Rowe Price, Charles Schwab, and State Street, but its technology has struggled to keep pace with that of rivals.
Vanguard, for its part, disputes Spillane’s account, saying it had no restrictions on the kind of trade Spillane claims to have attempted.
On July 19, Evolv listed on the Nasdaq exchange and began trading after a merger through a SPAC, or special purposes acquisition company. SPACs are generally shell companies with no assets. Amid an overheated stock market, private companies are flooding into SPACs, and bypassing the traditional IPO process and associated fees from investment bank middlemen to gain a public listing.
But SPACs have drawn the scrutiny of regulators, including new Security and Exchange Commission, or SEC, Chair Gary Gensler, who testified to Congress in May, warning that retail investors often don’t understand the costs. For instance, the SPAC organizers generally receive 20% of shares as a steep “promote” fee, Gensler noted.
Months ago, Spillane bought 3,000 shares of NewHold Investment Corp. (NHIC), the SPAC that merged with Evolv Technologies, a software maker for weapons detection equipment, which boasts affiliations with celebrities such as Bill Gates and Steffi Graf. Spillane then waited until it began trading.
The newly listed Evolv opened at $10 a share on July 19 and jumped almost 30%, “but Vanguard would not allow any trade of the security by either name. I called Vanguard’s help line twice, waiting on hold for more than an hour. I left a voice mail and received no call back or help in any way,” Spillane said.
“Vanguard failed to transact a significant trade for me,” Spillane said.
He said he was told that on the day the renamed stock begins to trade, “they won’t be able to execute trade online until the following day, due to technical issues. They can only trade SPAC mergers via the trading desk. Vanguard never warned anyone of that — including me.”
Vanguard spelled out the distinction: The firm does not restrict clients from investing in SPACs once they begin trading. EVLV merged with another security, NHIC, resulting in a CUSIP and name change for NHIC on July 19. “When these corporate actions occur, on the day of the CUSIP and name conversion, clients are not able to trade the particular security online, but can do so by phone. Clients attempting to trade online receive a message informing them that they need to call Vanguard to place an order. The security under the new name can be traded online the business day following the conversion.”
Spillane filed a complaint with the SEC.
His frustration echoes that of Robinhood customers, some of whom were barred from trading during the meme-stock craze. Critics of Robinhood, an online-only trading app, said the app’s technology was overwhelmed by heavy trading.
In January, Robinhood curbed purchases and sales in high-flying stocks including GameStop Inc., much to the chagrin of customers. In some cases, Robinhood locked customers’ accounts for more than a month, denying them access to their money, according to the Wall Street Journal.
However, unlike Robinhood, which went public Thursday, Vanguard has a customer service phone line to speak with representatives.
Spillane couldn’t get through to anyone at Vanguard, either by secure internal Vanguard messaging or by phone. He trades for his own account, and does not pay a management fee to Vanguard for an adviser to make trades for him.
“Their position is, because I didn’t reach someone live on the phone, they won’t correct the error. But I called twice, and I was on hold for an hour. They tracked my number calling in twice. But I couldn’t reach the trading desk, so it’s my fault,” Spillane said.
Vanguard, for its part, said it spoke with Spillane after a reporter contacted the company.
“We are not able to comment on specific client situations, but ... Vanguard does not restrict clients from investing in SPACs once they begin trading, and there were never any restrictions to buy or sell the security in question, EVLV,” according to a Vanguard spokesman. “Our client care team will follow up with Mr. Spillane to address his concerns.”
Spillane was able to trade Evolv online at another brokerage, Morgan Stanley, with no issues, the same day he was locked out at Vanguard.
“What do I do now? I take my money elsewhere. And tell everyone in my family who is at Vanguard to leave also. Customer service is everything.”
SPACs can be risky for unsophisticated investors. A Yale University study revealed the costs: Although SPACs generally raise $10 per share from investors in IPOs, by the time the SPAC merges with a target, it holds just $6.67 in cash for each outstanding share, the research paper found.