Fallen FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried was understandably the main draw at this year’s DealBook Summit, The New York Times’ annual $2,499-per-ticket confab for bold-faced business and political leaders. But SBF, as he’s commonly known, was merely the newsy headliner on a grim roster of conference-hopping elites. Still only 30 years old, SBF hasn’t had time to accumulate the body count of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fellow 2022 DealBooker. SBF might also lack the hubristic elan of co-panelist Mark Zuckerberg, who as Meta CEO has arguably destroyed more wealth in 2022, sinking billions of dollars into a metaverse project and tanking the company stock. SBF may be the new Elizabeth Holmes or Ken Lay, but he still moves in the world of sordid elites who helped subsidize his fraudulent crypto empire.
The DealBook appearance was hyped as a chance for Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Times business journalist who now plays one on TV, to ask some tough questions about what happened at his now-defunct crypto exchange FTX and Alameda, its affiliated hedge fund. Like all good post-crisis interviews, it was supposed to be an interrogation of this suddenly notorious financial innovator, making him publicly account for his sins and produce a flicker of emotion. Some requisite criticism emerged about whether the Times should be platforming SBF, but there was no doubt that if the paper of record, or any news organization, could get SBF to appear, even virtually via a digital link from his Bahamas compound, then it would. Maybe he’d say something legally actionable, went one optimistic line of argument.
For the last year, SBF was the cherubic face of crypto in America, a paper billionaire who—if you didn’t mind corporate money greasing the political process—was going to shape a new regulatory regime and make gambling on speculative digital assets safe for the masses. From his Bahamian headquarters, SBF strove to legalize the crypto casino and bring it onshore. Splashing money around Hollywood and Capitol Hill, FTX was not the world’s biggest exchange for cryptocurrency, but it was the one most firmly established in America’s public consciousness. Socially awkward but not shy, SBF gave innumerable interviews, appeared in ads alongside Gisele Bunchen (an environmental and social initiatives adviser for FTX), and testified in front of Congress. He became a top Democratic donor, but FTX also gave $1 million to a Mitch McConnell–linked PAC, and company executive Ryan Salame gave $24 million to Republicans. (What’s more, in a recently published interview with Tiffany Fong, a crypto YouTube personality, SBF claimed that he also directed around $40 million to GOP coffers via dark-money channels.) Recruiting a former aide to Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, an erstwhile Senate Banking Committee member, to be its in-house lobbyist, FTX was a bipartisan political powerhouse, steering crypto regulation away from the more hidebound Securities and Exchange Commission and toward the more pliant Commodity Futures Trade Commission.
Now, all that has crumbled, exposing a bankrupt business that toggled between reckless, disordered, fraudulent, greedy, corrupt, and incompetent. In an industry rife with scams and self-dealing, FTX may have, in the final accounting, set a new standard, buying its employees real estate, giving executives billions in loans, stealing up to $10 billion in deposits from FTX exchange customers and funneling the funds to Alameda to cover holes in its horribly mismanaged balance sheet. The list keeps growing—even John J. Ray III, the Enron cleanup artist brought in to reprise his role in the FTX debacle, was impressed by the mess awaiting him.
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If you had hoped that SBF’s DealBook appearance would provide answers about any of this, at least the sense of disappointment settled in quickly. Sorkin, his voice quavering initially, pressed SBF on his actions as CEO. “I was shocked by what happened this month,” said SBF, looking down, his voice quiet.
Sorkin read a letter from a customer who said that SBF stole his money. “I’m deeply sorry about what happened,” the putative thief said.
SBF explained that he thought the US platform that FTX operated, which was better regulated, was solvent. “I believe withdrawals could be opened up today and everyone could be made whole.”
Later, SBF fell into a stem-winding, abstraction-heavy explanation of what FTX and Alameda were and how they got too far out in front of their financial skis. The riff highlighted one of SBF’s rhetorical tics: He frequently bogs down his listener in wonky narratives, a quant’s view of trading and markets, straying far from the core issues at hand—such as, for example, the question of whether SBF diverted $10 billion in FTX customer deposits to make up for Alameda’s failed bets.
In tweets and other interviews, SBF has solemnly assumed moral responsibility as CEO, but he has denied any specific wrongdoing beyond a variation on the general admission that “I fucked up.” SBF’s version of events has focused on a margin position that Alameda apparently held on FTX, but the position was far larger than he knew. He didn’t know what was going on at one of his companies because he was worried about becoming too involved and developing a conflict of interest—despite reportedly living and working in close proximity with a number of Alameda employees.
“I wasn’t running Alameda,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly what was going on. I didn’t know the size of their position. A lot of these [things] are things I learned over the last month.”
Asked how FTX assets were lent to Alameda, SBF drifted off again into quant land. It should have been a simple question: Did you steal from customers? Did you divert FTX customer funds to Alameda?
Instead, Sorkin continued to ask if the two companies had “commingled” their funds. Not “knowingly,” SBF said, snapping out of quantspeak and showing a ready command of legalese. “I wasn’t trying to commingle funds.”
“Commingling” is too euphemistic. Even though Alameda and FTX were nominally classed as separate entities, both controlled by SBF, they both drew from the same enormous pot of money for banking purposes. FTX customers often wired money to an Alameda bank account at Silvergate, a crypto industry-focused bank. This was a major oversight that SBF has yet to explain away, but it was consistent with FTX’s flagrant lack of financial controls or proper accounting.
SBF’s reported stimulant use, rumors of polyamory, luxury apartments, and crackpot “effective altruism” philosophy will make for good color in the inevitable film and TV adaptations. At bottom, though, the FTX story is about money—real and fake—and where it went. Billions of dollars of venture capital and customer money went into the more than 100 companies that made up SBF’s empire, and very little of it is going to come back. Sorkin was right to ask about the source of political donations and how FTX could afford to extend huge loans and lines of credit to financially precarious firms as the market crashed over the summer. Where did the money come from? Alameda trading profits, SBF said—which sounds unlikely, given how bad Alameda seemed to be at trading.
If Sorkin were more focused on the money question, he would have asked about Tether, a notoriously suspect company that produces the industry’s most popular stablecoin. Tether was a key business partner for Alameda, which reportedly bought more than $36 billion worth of stablecoins. Did Alameda actually send $36 billion to Tether, and if so, where did all that fiat money come from? Why did Tether’s Caribbean banker co-own a tiny US bank in Washington State with FTX? How did an offshore crypto exchange and a banker affiliated with Tether, which is under investigation in the Southern District of New York, manage to get approval to purchase a federally chartered bank, which could be a major asset to an offshore crypto firm that mints its own tokens and moves money around in murky ways?
Some truth will emerge through the bankruptcy process for FTX. Early bankruptcy inquiries have already revealed a great deal about FTX’s shambolic operations and the criminal behavior likely at the heart of it. There will be endless lawsuits, and some prosecutions seem like a no-brainer. But amid this spectacle, it’s important to recall both that FTX is not the only fraudulent company in crypto, and SBF was not the only potentially criminal actor at FTX.
Since he blew up his fortune and made himself the most hated man in American business just a few weeks ago, SBF has given interviews to The New York Times, a YouTube crypto enthusiast, a Vox journalist, Good Morning America, and the Dealbook Summit. He’s offered comments to numerous other journalists and already gone to Twitter to spin some of his replies to Sorkin. He went on a Twitter Spaces session hosted by a sympathetic crypto influencer. The man won’t stop talking—that’s why his first team of lawyers reportedly dropped him as a client. He exhibits an almost pathological need to explain himself, to not be seen as the comic-book villain that his enemies would like him to be.
With SBF showing little inclination to retreat from the public eye, journalists will continue trying to get him to provide coherent answers about the many unresolved questions about what happened at FTX, and whether it was a criminal operation from the start. Some may produce good copy, but they won’t uncover the truth by putting SBF on the conference dais.
At the end of the DealBook event, Sorkin asked an obligatory question: Had Sam lied to the crowd that day?
“I was as truthful as I was knowledgeable to be,” he said. “There are some things I wish I knew more about.”
What’s clear is that the money is gone, plundered from accounts that FTX customers were promised were safe. It was stolen outright, frittered away, spent on real estate, or funneled to a hedge fund making ridiculously irresponsible bets, because it was all fake money anyway. The homespun, amphetamine-fueled philosophical system adopted by the higher-ups at FTX told them it was good to embrace maximum risk. It was a game. None of it was real—except the loss now afflicting victims of this fraud.