Breathtaking collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire

Sam Bankman-Fried

Few could have anticipated the breathtaking collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s multibillion-dollar crypto empire.

Yet, for all the potboiler twists, stunning revelations and anguished Twitter threads, it’s a fall from grace with an unmistakable ring of familiarity.

A week that began with two crypto CEOs tweeting barbs ended with the bankruptcy of FTX, one of the largest and most prominent crypto exchanges, and around 130 other companies it owned. The business had been trying to cover a shortfall of as much as $8 billion, with the specifics of its failure — now subject to multiple investigations — yet to be revealed.

This much is clear: an intoxicating brew of easy money, wishful thinking and hyped innovation contributed to an implosion that while spectacular was also nothing new when considered next to scandals like Enron, WorldCom and Lehman Brothers before it. The particulars differ, but each was propped up and laid low by hubris, regulatory weakness and the realities of an economic cycle with plenty of precedent.

“We’ve had an industry that was really built primarily on FOMO and easy money, and now that governments around the world are raising interest rates and that restricts easy money, you’re just surviving on FOMO,” said Hilary Allen, a law professor at American University in Washington. “It’s not as appealing anymore.”

While blame is in no short supply, the arc of the FTX’s fortunes can also be seen as a garden-variety consequence of Federal Reserve policy. FTX, along with crypto itself and a host of other market gimmicks, from meme stocks to stay-at-home tech fads and special purpose acquisition companies, flourished as the Covid-19 pandemic spurred the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates to zero and leave them there for two years.

Now, up against the Fed’s most aggressive tightening cycle in four decades, shaky empires are evaporating as fast as the liquidity that propped them up. FTX’s demise is a calamity, to be sure, unique in many respects, in which billions of dollars in paper wealth and trading profits are likely to be torched. But the failure of FTX is far less extraordinary when considered next to 11 months of wreckage in technology stocks and centuries of asset-bubble history.

FTX’s scandal has notable parallels with what befell Enron. Both were led by messianic figures in Bankman-Fried and Jeff Skilling who dazzled faithful with feats of technical wizardry. Both bathed in near-universal adoration from the press and the financial establishment. Both also seem to have made basic financial mistakes in trying to keep the party going. The crypto empire reportedly allowed its balance sheet to rest precariously on a token tied to its own fortunes, hearkening to Enron’s use of its own stock to prop up its financing structures.

In the end, a doomed hope that rising markets would hide mismanagement or outright fraud became the epitaph of a once-flourishing enterprise. When Bankman-Fried stepped down from his position as CEO of Friday, his replacement was John J. Ray III — the former chairman and president of Enron left to pick up the pieces of its bust in the early 2000s.

The boom-overbuild-bust cycle looks familiar to Bokeh Capital Partners Chief Investment Officer Kim Forrest. It’s happening in the whole economy at the moment, but the tech industry is the posterchild, she said. Where is crypto in that metaphor? “Ground zero.”

“I was a software engineer in the late 90s, I saw the excesses, ‘wow they’re hiring way too many people,’” Forrest said. “These companies had not been productive in hiring too much, not getting enough output and not showing the return of capital.”

For its own part, FTX had raised around $4 billion in funding across its network of affiliated companies, which included Alameda Research, a trading house co-founded by Bankman-Fried, FTX Ventures and a separate exchange for American investors.

While more spectacular, FTX’s collapse shares storylines with much that has gone amiss in markets and the technology space in the pandemic era. Besides its obvious resemblance to fellow crypto casualties Three Arrows Capital, the Terra ecosystem and Celsius Network, its demise was fueled by complacency and belief in its own genius that bears hallmarks of the crises afflicting Meta Inc. and Twitter Inc. at present.

As far as bubbles go, few were as enthusiastically foretold as this one. Along with meme stocks, the crypto craze has been ridiculed by securities industry veterans almost since the moment it began, with the pitch of the critique growing along with the price of Bitcoin in 2020. Charlie Munger once said he admired the Chinese for banning it, while Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb likened Bitcoin to a “tumor.”

They came off as cranks then. Now those predictions are coming true as the Fed tightens the screws. Meme stocks are little more than a sideshow, save for the occasional pop in the likes of AMC Entertainment Holdings and GameStop Corp. Highly speculative growth shares have crumbled, dragging Cathie Wood’s Ark Innovation exchange-traded fund — one of the highest-fliers of the pandemic era — to its lowest level since 2020.

A bull market masks a lot of sins, only to be laid bare by a turn of the cycle. History is littered with such examples, perhaps none more famous than the demise of Bernard Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme, which hummed along for at least 15 years before plunging equity markets in 2008 led clients to seek more withdrawals than he could accommodate.

“You need to have a degree of volatility in financial markets because that will prevent overlevering and taking advantage of the system,” said Michael O’Rourke, chief market strategist at Jonestrading. “Madoff was only exposed because of the global financial crisis.”

Even with regulation seemingly on the horizon for the crypto industry, the off-shore location of many crypto firms (FTX included) has left authorities like the Securities and Exchange Commission with their hands tied. Hester M. Peirce, an SEC Commissioner, said that questions around lack of jurisdictional clarity are “partly our fault” given investors and businesses had asked the watchdog “time and time again to provide more clarity about where our jurisdiction lies and we’ve not done so.”

As a result, the financial playground that is crypto has been allowed to flourish with limited oversight. “There isn’t a holistic digital asset regime that is accepted globally, and that that creates massive opportunities,” said Jay Wilson, investment director at London-based venture capital firm AlbionVC.

The cost is clear to Bokeh’s Forrest: this will happen again. The players and details will be different, she said, but human psychology will be the same.

“People don’t change. People just don’t change,” Forrest said. “As much as we’d like to think we learn from the past — we may learn not to invest in WorldCom, but we don’t know to not look for another one.”