From $32 billion to criminal investigations: How Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire vanished overnight

Energy News

Samuel Bankman-Fried’s poster in downtown San Francisco.
MacKenzie Sigalos | CNBC

The Kimchi Swap put Sam Bankman-Fried on the map.

The year was 2017, and the ex-Jane Street Capital quant trader noticed something funny when he looked at the page on CoinMarketCap.com listing the price of bitcoin on exchanges around the world. Today, that price is pretty much uniform across the exchanges, but back then, Bankman-Fried previously told CNBC, he would sometimes see a 60% difference in the value of the coin. His immediate instinct, he said, was to get in on the arbitrage trade — buying bitcoin on one exchange, selling it back on another exchange, and then earning a profit equivalent to the price spread.

“That’s the lowest hanging fruit,” Bankman-Fried said in September.

The arbitrage opportunity was especially compelling in South Korea, where the exchange-listed price of bitcoin was significantly more than in other countries. It was dubbed the Kimchi Premium — a reference to the traditional Korean side dish of salted and fermented cabbage.

After a month of personally dabbling in the market, Bankman-Fried launched his own trading house, Alameda Research — named after his hometown of Alameda, California, near San Francisco — to scale the opportunity and work on it full-time. Bankman-Fried said in an interview in September that the firm sometimes made as much as a million dollars a day.

Part of why SBF, as he’s also called, earned street cred for carrying out a relatively straightforward trading strategy had to do with the fact that it wasn’t the easiest thing to execute on crypto rails five years ago. Bitcoin arbitrage involved setting up connections to each one of the trading platforms, as well as building out other complicated infrastructure to abstract away a lot of the operational aspects of making the trade. Bankman-Fried’s Alameda became very good at that, and the money rolled in.

From there, the SBF empire ballooned.

Alameda’s success spurred the launch of crypto exchange FTX in the spring of 2019. FTX’s success begat a $2 billion venture fund that seeded other crypto firms. Bankman-Fried’s personal wealth grew to over $16 billion at its peak in March.

Bankman-Fried was suddenly the poster boy for crypto everywhere, and the FTX logo adorned everything from Formula 1 race cars to a Miami basketball arena. The 30-year-old went on an endless press tour, bragged about having a balance sheet that could one day buy Goldman Sachs, and became a fixture in Washington, where he was one of the Democratic Party’s top donors, promising to sink $1 billion into U.S. political races before later backtracking.

It was all a mirage.

As crypto prices tanked this year, Bankman-Fried boasted that he and his enterprise were immune. But in fact, the sectorwide wipeout hit his operation quite hard. Alameda borrowed money to invest in failing digital asset firms this spring and summer to keep the industry afloat, then reportedly siphoned off FTX customers’ deposits to stave off margin calls and meet immediate debt obligations. A Twitter fight with the CEO of rival exchange Binance pulled the mask off the scheme.

Alameda, FTX and a host of subsidiaries Bankman-Fried founded have filed for bankruptcy protection in Delaware. He’s stepped down from his leadership roles and lost 94% of his personal wealth in a single day. It is unclear exactly where he is now, as his $40 million Bahamas penthouse is reportedly up for sale. The photos of his face plastered across FTX advertisements throughout downtown San Francisco serve as an unwelcome reminder of his rotting empire.

It was a steep fall from hero to villain. But there were a lot of signs.

Bankman-Fried told CNBC in September that one of his fundamental principles when it comes to playing the markets is working with incomplete information.

“When you can sort of start to quantify and map out what’s going on, but you know there are a lot of things you don’t know,” he said. “You know you’re being approximate, but you have to try to figure out what trade to do anyway.”

The following account is based on reporting from CNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Piecing together information from various news sources paints a picture of an investor who over-extended himself, frantically moved to cover his mistakes with questionable and perhaps illegal tactics, and surrounded himself with a tight cabal of advisors who could not or would not curb his worst impulses.

What went wrong in the last year

At some point in the last two years, according to reports, Alameda began borrowing money for various purposes, including to make venture investments.

Six months ago, a wave of titans in the crypto sector folded as depressed token prices sucked liquidity out of the market. First came the spectacular failure of a popular U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin project — the stablecoin known as terraUSD, or UST, and its sister token luna — wiping out $60 billion. That collapse helped to bring down Three Arrows Capital, or 3AC, which was one of the industry’s most respected crypto hedge funds. Crypto brokers and lenders such as Voyager Digital and Celsius had significant exposure to 3AC, so they fell right along with it in quick succession.

The big problem was that everyone was borrowing from one another, which only works when the price of all those crypto coins keeps going up. By June, bitcoin and ether had both tumbled by more than half for the year.

“Leverage is the source of every implosion in financial institutions, both traditional and crypto,” said Hart Lambur, a former Goldman Sachs government bond trader who provided liquidity in U.S. Treasuries for central banks, money managers and hedge funds.

Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Long-Term Capital, Three Arrows Capital and now FTX all blew up due to bad leverage that got sniffed out and exploited by the market,” said Lambur, who now works in decentralized finance.

As the dominoes fell, Bankman-Fried jumped into the mix in June to try to bail out some of the failing crypto firms before it was too late, extending hundreds of millions of dollars in financing. In some cases, he made moves to try to buy these companies at fire-sale prices.

Amid the wave of bankruptcies, some of Alameda’s lenders asked for their money back. But Alameda didn’t have it, because it was no longer liquid. Bankman-Fried’s trading firm had parked the borrowed money in venture investments, a decision that was “probably not really worth it,” he told the Times in an interview Sunday.

To meet its debt obligations, FTX borrowed from customer deposits in FTX to quietly bail out Alameda, the Journal and the Times reported. The borrowing was in the billions. Bankman-Fried admitted the move in his interview with the Times, saying that Alameda had a large “margin position” on FTX, but he declined to disclose the exact amount.

“It was substantially larger than I had thought it was,” Bankman-Fried told the Times. “And in fact the downside risk was very significant.”

Reuters and the Journal both reported that the lifeline was around $10 billion, and Reuters reports that $1 billion to $2 billion of that emergency financing is now missing. Tapping customer funds without permission was a violation of FTX’s own terms and conditions. On Wall Street, it would be a clear violation of U.S. securities laws.

The two firms — one of the world’s biggest crypto brokers and one of the world’s biggest crypto buyers — were supposed to be separated by a firewall. But they were, in fact, quite cozy, at one point extending to a romantic relationship between Bankman-Fried and Alameda CEO Caroline Ellison, he acknowledged to the Times.

“FTX and Alameda had an extremely problematic relationship,” Castle Island Venture’s Nic Carter told CNBC. “Bankman-Fried operated both an exchange and a prop shop, which is super unorthodox and just not really allowed in actually regulated capital markets.”

The borrowing and lending scheme between the two firms was more convoluted than just using customer funds to make up for bad trading bets. FTX tried to paper over the hole by denoting assets in two crypto tokens that were essentially made up — FTT, a token created by FTX, and Serum, which was a token created and promoted by FTX and Alameda, according to financial filings reported by Bloomberg’s Matt Levine.

Firms make up crypto tokens all the time — indeed, it’s a big part of how the crypto boom of the last two years was financed — and they usually offer some sort of benefit to users, although their real value to most traders is simple speculation, that is, the hope that the price will rise. Owners of FTT were promised lower trading costs on FTX and the ability to earn interest and rewards, such as waived blockchain fees. While investors can profit when FTT and other coins increase in value, they’re largely unregulated and are particularly susceptible to market downturns.

These tokens were essentially proxies for what people believed Bankman-Fried’s exchange to be worth, since it controlled the vast majority of them. Investor confidence in FTX was reflected in the price of FTT.

The key point here is that FTX was reportedly siphoning off customer assets as collateral for loans, and then covering it with a token it made up and printed at will, drip-feeding only a fraction of its supply into the open market. The financial acrobatics between the two firms somewhat resembles the moves that sank energy firm Enron almost two decades ago — in that case, Enron essentially hid losses by transferring underperforming assets to off-balance sheet subsidiaries, then created complicated financial instruments to obscure the moves.

As all this was happening, Bankman-Fried continued his press tour, lionized as one of the great young tech entrepreneurs of the age. It only began to unravel once Bankman-Fried got into a public spat with Binance, a rival exchange.

What went wrong in the last two weeks

The relationship between Binance and Bankman-Fried goes back almost to the beginning of his time in the industry. In 2019, Binance announced a strategic investment in FTX and said that as part of the deal it had taken “a long-term position in the FTX Token (FTT) to help enable sustainable growth of the FTX ecosystem.”

Flash forward a couple years to the summer of 2022. Bankman-Fried was pressing regulators to look into Binance and criticizing the exchange in public. It’s unclear exactly why — it could have been based on legitimate suspicions. Or it may simply have been because Binance was a major competitor to FTX, both as an exchange and as a potential buyer of other distressed crypto companies.

Whatever the reason, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, known as CZ, soon saw his chance to strike.

On Nov. 2, CoinDesk reported a leaked balance sheet showing that a significant amount of Alameda’s assets were held in FTX’s illiquid FTT token. It raised questions about both the trading firm’s solvency and FTX’s financials.

Zhao took to Twitter on Nov. 6, saying that Binance had about $2.1 billion worth of FTT and BUSD, its own stablecoin.

Then he dropped the bomb:

“Due to recent revelations that have came to light, we have decided to liquidate any remaining FTT on our books,” he said.

Investors raced to pull money out of FTX. On Nov. 6, according to Bankman-Fried, the exchange had roughly $5 billion of withdrawals, “the largest by a huge margin.” On an average day, net inflows had been in the tens of millions of dollars.

The speed of the withdrawals underscores how the largely unregulated crypto market is often operating in an information vacuum, meaning that traders react fast when new facts come to light.

“Crypto players are reacting quicker to news and rumor, which in turn builds up a liquidity crisis much faster than one would have seen in traditional finance,” said Fabian Astic, head of decentralized finance and digital assets for Moody’s Investors Service. 

“The opacity of the market operations often leads to panic reactions that, in turn, spark a liquidity crunch. The developments with Celsius, Three Arrows, Voyager, and FTX show how easy it is for crypto investors to lose confidence, prompting them to withdraw large sums and causing a near-death crisis for these firms,” Astic said.

As the FTT token plunged in value in tandem with the mass withdrawals, Bankman-Fried quietly sought investors to cover the multibillion-dollar hole from the money that had been withdrawn by Alameda. That value may have been as high as $10 billion, according to multiple reports. They all declined, and in a move of desperation, SBF turned to CZ.

In a public tweet on Nov. 8, Zhao said Binance agreed to buy the company, though the deal had a key term: nonbinding. The sudden public revelation that FTX was in need of a bailout caused FTT’s value to plunge off a cliff.

The next day, Zhao claimed he did due diligence and didn’t like what he saw, essentially sealing FTX’s demise. Bankman-Fried speculated to the Times that Zhao never intended to buy it in the first place.

On Friday, Nov. 11, FTX and Alameda both filed for bankruptcy. FTX, which was valued at $32 billion in a financing round earlier this year, has frozen trading and customer assets and is seeking to discharge its creditors in bankruptcy court. Bankman-Fried is no longer the boss at either firm.

A new bankruptcy filing postedTuesday shows that FTX may have more than 1 million creditors. It plans to file a list of the 50 largest ones this week.

Lawyers for the exchange wrote that FTX has been in contact with “dozens” of regulators in the U.S. and overseas in the last 72 hours, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The SEC and Department of Justice are reportedly investigating FTX for civil and criminal violations of securities laws. Financial regulators in the Bahamas are also reportedly looking at the possibility of criminal misconduct.

CEO of FTX Sam Bankman-Fried testifies during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong | Getty Images

Binance is now poised to claim absolute dominance over the industry.

“Binance clearly comes out stronger from all of this,” said William Quigley, co-founder of the U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin tether. ”CZ claims Binance has no debt, and doesn’t use its BNB token as collateral. Both of those are good practices in the highly volatile crypto markets.”

Quigley added that more institutional trading and custody will likely shift to Binance.

“The cryptocurrency industry’s entire ethos is founded on disintermediation and decentralization, so Binance’s ever-growing dominance raises reasonable fears over how further centralization will affect the average trader,” said Clara Medalie, director of research at data firm Kaiko.

“FTX’s collapse benefits no one, not even Binance, which will now face growing questions over its monopoly of market activity,” Medalie told CNBC, speculating that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of market participants affected by the fall of FTX and Alameda.

“Each entity has numerous twisted and over-lapping financial ties to projects throughout the industry that now stand to lose support or go under themselves,” she said.

In the meantime, though, Binance took a bath on the collapse of the FTT token, which Zhao said the firm held after Bankman-Fried asked for a bailout.

“Full disclosure,” Zhao tweeted Sunday.

“Binance never shorted FTT. We still have a bag of as we stopped selling FTT after SBF called me. Very expensive call.”

— CNBC’s Ari Levy, Kate Rooney and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.

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