Sam Bankman-Fried is a name you’re going to hear a lot about over the next year – and rightly so. The implosion of his cryptocurrency empire is like if Enron and Bernie Madoff had a baby, and that baby became the 2nd largest Democratic Party donor on his 2nd birthday while partnering with the World Economic Forum and the Bank of Ukraine.
Bankman-Fried – or SBF for short – saw his net worth collapse by 94 percent or more last week when his cryptocurrency firms (FTX and FTX US) and trading company (Alameda Research) turned out to be shambolic ponzi schemes. The vaunted cryptocurrency empire turned out to be 15 kids in the Bahamas taking prodigious amounts of Adderall, sleeping with each other, and trading against their own customers with their customers’ money.
If that story wasn’t enough of a Netflix producer’s dream, SBF’s parents are Stanford law professors with ties to the Democratic Party, SBF himself has given $50 million to Democrats including Joe Biden, the family has ties to the Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum, and FTX has some kind of financial partnership with Ukraine. Then there’s the snapshot of FTX’s balance sheet obtained by Financial Times, that has an item labeled: “TRUMPLOSE”. Now, it doesn’t take a CPA to guess what that means.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are investigating whether any laws were broken by SBF, FTX, or anyone else involved in the scheme. All of this is fertile ground for online conspiracy theorists. So what’s fact and what’s fiction? And what do we just not know? Let’s try to sort it all out.
WHAT HAPPENED TO FTX?
Before we get into SBF’s rise and his schemes and the conspiracy theories, it’s worth recapping briefly what happened with FTX, FTX US, and Alameda Research. The short version: they were part of a massive ponzi scheme, perhaps the largest ever, and it exploded last week when the firms filed for bankruptcy.
This Twitter user does an excellent job of summarizing the financial scheme in a very short video:
FTX’s troubles began with the downturn in cryptocurrency prices but came to a head last week thanks to rival exchange Binance. Binance was an early investor in FTX, but in the summer of 2021, FTX bought back its shares from the company. Unknown at the time was that FTX bought those shares back, in part, with a huge amount of its own crypto token, FTT. Sometime last week, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao discovered that FTX wasn’t as healthy as it maintained, and he decided he didn’t want all that overvalued FTT on his books. He tweeted out that he was going to begin dumping the token on the market. Cue the bank run. Over the next 48 hours, SBF began frantically trying to save the sinking ship, including with an offer to sell FTX to Binance, which Binance initially agreed to. Then, after getting a peek at FTX’s books, Zhao tweeted that he didn’t want to buy the stinking mess. That was pretty much the end of FTX.
After the company was exposed and filed for bankruptcy, another crazy development: The firm’s remaining cryptocurrency started to disappear, moving in multimillion dollar chunks. FTX claimed the company was hacked and told users to delete its app and avoid the website. The company’s post-bankruptcy CEO, the same guy who oversaw Enron’s proceedings by the way, seemed unaware that more than $470 million in digital assets were moving mysteriously. As of this writing, it’s unclear whether the transfers were the work of a black hat hacker, an inside job, part of the bankruptcy reorganization, or some combination of all of those. Other reports indicate that SBF programmed a “backdoor” into FTX’s crypto accounts that allowed him to tap customer deposits on a whim, whever Alameda Research, his trading firm, needed to shore up margins, which was often.
Bottom line: SBF went from a left-wing hero worth $32 billion to a naked fraud and charlatan almost overnight; FTX, once a financial unicorn headed for Amazon or Facebook status, is now a byword; and no one knows where all the money went or who’s in control of what remains.
WHO IS SAMUEL BANKMAN-FRIED?
SBF was hailed by Fortune as the next Warren Buffett. Matt Damon, Larry David, and Tom Brady all endorsed his products in national advertising, including a Super Bowl spot. Brady even got an equity deal, which is now probably worth zero.
SBF bought the naming rights to the Miami Heat’s arena. Venture Cap giant Sequoia Capital, a company that made early bets on Google and PayPal, bought into FTX in a big way – they’ve written down a $210M investment to zero. If you want to know what Silicon Valley and rich liberals thought about SBF before last week, read this puff piece posted by Sequoia on the guy, a piece Sequoia is rapidly trying to delete from the Internet. TL;DR – Some of the smartest, wealthiest people in America thought SBF was Techno Jesus Superstar, here to save us with his “Effective Altruism” as he became the first trillionaire. I’m not kidding, read the story.
Now, a lot of people have questioned where SBF came up with his money in the first place, and that’s an excellent place to start. His impractical rise from an anonymous MIT geek to a major political power broker worth $32 billion has attracted a lot of attention, but very few people have scratched the surface of his origin story – and next to nothing is known about his mysterious partner in crime Gary Wang. SBF’s origin story runs like this: He’s a smart guy who goes to MIT and lands a job at Jane Street trading ETFs. He’s really good at it – like Bradley Cooper in “Limitless” after he takes the NZT-48 good at it – and eventually he starts running his own trades via Alameda Research, a company he started with Gary Wang in 2017.
Specifically, Alameda capitalizes on an arbitrage trade targeting the price differences between the price of bitcoin in American markets and the price of bitcoin in Asian markets. In simple terms, he buys bitcoin trading at a low price on Asian markets and sells it in American markets for a higher price. This was theoretically possible at the time because of inefficiencies in cryptocurrency markets. But it would require a huge amount of money to start with in order to profit from the exploitation. SBF has never said where the initial capital to conduct this arbitrage trading came from…
Somehow, he makes vast amounts of money exploiting this trade. Using that money, plus a pile of investment from outside venture cap firms and investors hungry to cash in on the cryptocurrency phenomenon, he launches FTX in 2019 – an off-shore trading platform based in the Bahamas. The company is based in the Bahamas for regulatory reasons. FTX wanted to offer leveraged trades — hugely risky gambles on price fluctuations in cryptocurrency prices — and that wasn’t allowed under U.S. law. Eventually, he did launch a US-compliant version of the platform, FTX US. According to the glowing profile of SBF that Sequoia Capital published online but has since tried to remove, well-heeled tech founders had seemingly boundless confidence in SBF.
In conjunction with this, SBF and his cabal of rich nerd friends expanded Alameda’s trading activities and solicited even more outside investment. In a pitch deck that was posted online, Alameda promised investors vast, guaranteed returns of 15 percent or more for no-risk throughout 2020 and 2021.
Here are some images of that pitch deck.
How could they promise huge returns and zero risk? Let’s turn to Carolina Ellison, reportedly SBF’s one-time girlfriend ad head of the nerd squad at Alameda. She’ll explain for us the brilliant trading strategy that attracted so much “smart” money:
Keep in mind that SBF transfered $9-$10bn in FTX funds to Ellison, the woman in the video who brags about only using “elementary school” math. Ellison’s father, it’s worth noting, is MIT economist Glenn Ellison. The only reason that’s interesting is because current SEC Chair Gary Gensler formerly taught economics, including a class on crypto currency, for MIT’s economics department, so the pair probably know each other.
THE BANKMANS AND THE FRIEDS
Here’s where the fertile ground for conspiracy theories begins. I’ll do my best just to lay out what we know for a fact and what’s just Twitter speculation.
SBF’s mother, Barbara Fried, is a law professor at Stanford University and a prolific Democratic bundler (read: fundraiser). In 2018, just before the launch of FTX, Fried co-founded a secretive Silicon Valley group called “Mind the Gap” whose sole purpose was quietly raising gobs of money for left-wing politicians. According to left-wing outlet Vox, Mind the Gap raised more than $20 million in 2018 and 2019 from Silicon Valley bigs like Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Fried, who had no previous experience in fundraising or political campaigning, told Vox Mind the Gap was a “pro-bono donor advisor to people who are interested in evidence-driven decision making.” Because MTG worked as a bundler, telling rich liberals where to donate and when, rather than as a passthrough political action committee, Federal Election Commission campaign finance records don’t really show they true extent of Fried’s influence over Democratic giving from 2018-2022. The group claims to have raised $11 million from 800 people to support long-shot House elections in 2018. In sum, SBF’s mum was a well-connected Democrat law prof slinging gobs of cash around Democratic political circles.
SBF’s father, Joseph Bankman, is also a well-connected professor at Stanford Law. While Fried was more involved in the political side of SBF’s operation, Bankman was heavily involved in the business itself, including helping to raise funds to finance the firm. Bankman is a leading expert on state and federal tax shelters, and some in the cryptocurrency space have speculated that he might have used his expertise to create the corporate structure (see below) of his son’s offshore financial firms.
Beyond his parents, SBF’s aunt, Linda Fried, is an epidemiologist at Columbia University with connections to the World Economic Forum. She is a member of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Aging, and WEF touts her affiliation on their website.
For the uninitiated, the World Economic Forum is an international organization run by Klaus Schwab. Klaus Schwab wrote the book, “COVID-19: The Great Reset”. That book is stark admission of international billionaires seeking to take advantage of COVID-19 panic. Although his dresses up his schemes in flowery techno-babble and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), Schwab is just an old-fashioned socialist. He wants high taxes, high government spending, less individual freedom, and more centralized control over individual and economic life.
On the surface, the WEF’s mission is “improving” the world. But in practice the WEF is just a cabal of super rich leftists who fly to Davos on their private jets to lecture the rest of us on the perils of eating red meat. These are the uber libs who want us to eat bugs instead of cows, ride bikes everywhere, pay 75% income taxes, and submit to Central Bank Digital Currency’s that technocrats can control from their mansions.
Back to SBF: How deep is his connection to Schwab’s WEF through his aunt? Who knows. But we do know that FTX was a touted partner of the WEF. SBF spoke at Davos last May. WEF’s website bragged about their partnership and has recently scrambled to remove all of those references from the internet. And we also know that the Bankman-Fried family has other connections to the COVID-19 pandemic grift. SBF’s brother, Gabriel Bankman-Fried, was the founder of “Guarding Against Pandemics.” GAP is a 501©3 non-profit formed in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic with a view to avoiding the next pandemic, according to the group’s website. He resigned in light of his brother’s financial troubles.
At a minimum, we can say that SBF had political connections running through the highest levels of finance, academia, and international organizations. The question is, did the wealth he acquired through the brilliant trading schemes of Alameda Research grant him that kind of access? Or did that kind of access help him acquire the wealth he later attributed to his genius trading schemes? In Washington, D.C., the evidence would suggest that his money paved the way for him to cozy up to regulators as he sought to construct a regulatory moat around his businesses.
SBF’S POLITICAL SPENDING
In 2020, SBF gave $5.2 million to President Joe Biden’s campaign, but his political spending was then only just getting started. SBF created the main vehicle for his political spending in 2022: Protect Our Future PAC. That PAC raised $28.4 million and spent all most all of it on Democratic primaries and the general election. Almost all of that came from SBF, with rounding error contributions from Everytown for Gun Safety Action (Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group) and a California guy named David Eth. The PAC spending made SBF the sixth largest donor to American politics in the 2021-2022 cycle, and the second largest donor to Democratic candidates, topped only by George Soros.
That PAC’s messaging orbited pandemic prevention and it claimed to endorse only candidates who took long term views on pandemic planning. SBF’s PAC endorsed the following candidates, a blend of state, local, and federal candidates: Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), Adam Hollier (MI-13), Alderman Gilbert Villegas (IL-03), Anthony Delgado (NY Lt. Governor), Becca Balint (VT-AL), Brittany Pettersen (CO-7), Carrick Flynn (OR-06), Chuy Garcia (IL-04), Francis Conole (NY- 22), Haley Stevens (MI-11), Jared Moskowitz (FL-22), Jonathan Jackson (IL-01), Josh Lafazan (NY-03), Laura Gillen (NY-04), Max Rose (NY-11), Maxwell Alejandro Frost (FL-10), Mayor Robert Garcia (CA-42), Morgan McGarvey (KY-03), Nikki Budzinski (IL-13), Peter Welch (VT-SEN), Rep. Lucy McBath (GA-07), Rep. Ritchie Torres (NY-15), Rep. Shontel Brown (OH-11), Robert Menendez, Jr. (NJ-08), State Rep. Jasmine, Crockett (TX-30), Sydney Kamlager (CA-30), and Valerie Foushee (NC-04).
There doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to a lot of this spending. Spanberger won a close race for a Virginia House seat; Balint won a safe Dem seat in Vermont. Pettersen won a House seat in Colorado; Conole lost a close election in upstate New York. Stevens trounced her Republican opponent and so did Moskowitz in Florida. Brown won with 77 percent of the vote. If there’s a theme, it’s SBF spent on races that would be Dem blowouts, picking likely winners rather than edge cases. The exception to that analysis is a big one: Carrick Flynn. Flynn ran for Oregon’s 6th Congressional District in a crowded field of Democrats. He finished second, with 18.3 percent of the vote, losing to Andrea Salinas, who went on to win a close race to represent a district that includes Salem and parts of the Portland area.
According to campaign finance records, SBF’s PAC spent $10.5 million promoting Flynn. That’s more than one-third of the group’s total funding spent on a Dem primary candidate who bagged 11,105 votes. That means SBF paid $945 for every Flynn vote. Unusual, to say the least, but double so when you consider his mother’s whole political schtick is maximizing the impact of political spending using sophisticated strategies and analysis. The only explanation conventional media has come up with for the scale of these contributions is that Flynn, like SBF, is a proponent of a secular philosophy known as Effective Altruism. For those who see in SBF a Democratic money laundering operation, the utter ineffectiveness of his spending is an argument against the against the conspiracy theory. Surely, if SBF’s political operation was part of a broader scheme, it would have been more effective.
In addition to the Protect Our Future PAC, SBF gave to more traditional Democrat power groups. He gave $6,000,000 to the House Majority PAC, $5,000,000 to the Future Forward PAC, more than $250,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and nearly $100,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC). SBF also maxxed out his personal contributions to a host of candidates, including Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, NJ Democratic Senator Cory Booker, and New Hampshire Democrat Sen. Maggie Hassan. All told, his campaign spending in the 2022 cycle reached $42.7 million.
But that’s not the whole story of FTX’s attempts to influence politics. Ryan Salame, SBF’s partner at FTX, sometimes listed as a Co-CEO, made max contributions to several Republican candidates, including Republican leaders. All told, Salame gave more than $23.6 million to right-leaning political candidates and causes. More than $15 million of that went to a political action committee called American Dream Federal Action. The goal of that PAC was to back “forward-thinking” Republicans. FTX employees made nearly $20 million in various contributions, bringing the total FTX-connected political spending to nearly $70 million for the 2021-2022 cycle, according to FEC data.
Prior to his implosion, SBF was doing more than just funding politicians to curry favor in Wasington, D.C. Through corporate events, FTX secured the patronage of internationalist luminaries like former Democratic President Bill Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. He also secured a host of meetings and Congressional appearances that will undoubtedly come under closer scrutiny in light of FTX’s collapse. At least one Republican lawmaker has already blown the whistle on SBF’s relationship with U.S. regulators, specifically Securities and Exchange Commissioner Gary Gensler. And we know that SBF had taken private meetings with Gensler just a few months ago.
Gensler was already under fire for failing to flag earlier crypto currency disasters (Terra Luna), but now industry analysts and Gensler’s long-time critics are questioning whether Gensler was in the early stages of a corrupt bargain that would have granted FTX a serious regulatory advantage over its competitors. Jeff J. Roberts writes in Fortune today that FTX may have acquired BlockFi, a crypto lending company, earlier this year in order to take advantage of BlockFi’s recent settlement with the SEC, a move that would have theoretically extended BlockFi’s amnesty protections to FTX more broadly. Special regulatory status to operate in the U.S. would have blown FTX’s existing and future competition out of the water.
Here’s just one example. SBF testified in Congress regarding the role that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) plays in regulating cryptocurrency. SBF said he wanted to increase the budget for CFTC with outside contributions from FFX and its competitors. In other words, he was volunteering to throw cash at the financial cops who would be in charge of regulating him.
Seeking regulatory capture through an elaborate financial conspiracy is pretty run of the mill for Washington, D.C. these days. To have done it out in the open just shows how high SBF was on his own legend. With Republicans retaking a majority in the House of Representatives, I suspect there will be a new round of investigations into what SBF’s partners in the federal regulatory regime knew, when they knew it, and what they had promised him. Interestingly, FTX’s plot to use the American regulatory system to solidify their own advantages was exposed not by U.S. regulators or journalists, but through citizen journalism. A Twitter user was the first to publicly suggest SBF was lobbying for a bill that would have killed the nascent industry of decentralized finance while allowing FTX to dominate the field.
Now here’s where the conspiracy theorists really start quivering: Did a cabal of U.S. actors send taxpayer money to Ukraine that was transferred back into FTX to launder money into the Democratic Party? That would be a sensational story, but what we do know?
According to reporting from Coin Desk, the Ukrainian government partnered with FTX to help convert cryptocurrency “donations” into arms and war supplies. According to some estimates, between FTX and the National Bank of Ukraine facilitated the flow of up to $100 million worth of bitcoin and cryptocurrency for the war effort. Ukrainian officials have refuted the allegation that anything nefarious happened with FTX, but that’s pretty much meaningless. As far as I’m concerned, it’s only smoke around the potential fire.
The biggest evidence in favor of the conspiracy theory is the timing of SBF’s donations: he gave much more money to Democrats after the partnership with Ukraine than he did before. In 2021 and in the first part of 2022 (prior to the partnership with Ukraine in March of 2022), SBF had given $11.7 million to political candidates, according to FEC records. After March 15, 2022, the date when Coindesk first reported the partnership with Ukraine, SBF gives another $22.4 million to politicians and political committees. In May, two months after the start of FTX’s Ukrainian partnership, SBF tells a podcaster that his “soft ceiling” for political spending on left-wing causes is $1,000,000,000. Regardless of what you think about the conspiracy theory, it’s clear that SBF donated far more money after the Ukrainian partnership and floated the idea of donating enormous sums – after the Ukrainian partnership.
However, it’s unclear whether FTX’s relationship with Ukraine involved any Ukrainian investment into FTX. On the surface, it looks like SBF was virtue signaling his anti-Russian credentials by converting cryptocurrency for Ukraine – lending a crypto hand to the war effort. But with so many cryptocurrency shenanigans going on, it’s hard to know for sure what the flow of money really looked like. If Ukrainian relief money was flowing onto FTX’s books, that would raise serious questions for the U.S. government, considering U.S. taxpayers have shelled out more than $60 billion in aid for Ukraine’s war effort.
Lastly, a word or two must be said about Gary Wang, SBF’s partner from the very beginning of Alameda Research. The first question about Wang is surely: Is he a real person? Does he exist? Or is he just another fraudulent creation? These are valid questions because Wang has virtually no online presence. This is one of the only pictures of Gary Wang on the internet, courtesy of his partners at Sequoia Capital.
If SBF is in the hot seat for potential criminal activity related to the collapse of FTX and Alameda, then what about Wang? And what about all the other housemates in the Bahama’s who were surely keyed in to what was going on behind the scenes? Michael Kives, a Hollywood-connected fixer is also worth investigating over his ties to the FTX debacle.
And why the hell did FTX have a $7 million line item on its balance sheet labeled “TRUMPLOSE”?
There’s no smoking gun — not yet, anyways — that FTX was some elaborate money laundering operation — but there’s a whole lot of smoke. We know for sure that the $50 million SBF spent on political contributions originated, at least in part, from the suspect activities of his company. But there’s no proof of a grander conspiracy. And although the timeline of his giving and his partnership with the Ukraine is suspicious, there’s also no evidence of a scheme to launder money through Ukraine and back into American politics. There is, however, more than enough for the vaunted journalists of the elite D.C. and NYC media begin investigating. Which I’m sure they’ll do as soon as they’re done investigating anonymous Reddit users who make memes about CNN, random guys who donated to Kyle Rittenhouse’s GoFundMe, and otherwise trying to ruin the lives of ordinary Americans.
The other conspiracy theory, the one I consider more likely, is that SBF and FTX were part of an operation to bring the Wild Wild West of cryptocurrency under the U.S. regulatory thumb. We know this was part of SBF’s business model. But now that the whole scheme has collapsed, SBF almost works better for enemies of cryptocurrency as a useful idiot. Here’s a story of unregulated cryptocurrency robber barrons swindling retail investors. It’s the perfect story for the Elizabeth Warren’s of the world to make the case for heavy-handed regulations cracking down on financial innovation.
Bitcoin, and to a lesser extent other cryptocurrencies, provides a censorship resistant way to store value and conduct transactions without the need of third party financial firms. In other words, they allow normal people to conduct business without Big Brother or Big Bankster looking over their shoulder or telling them they can’t. Doesn’t take an active imagination to see why central-planners and government authorities might want to crack down on a technology that allows for that kind of freedom.
Edit: Well this is interesting…