The arrest of FTX co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried on a variety of fraud charges has been greeted in some quarters as a vindication for the cryptocurrency economy. After all, the allegations focused on generic financial crimes, and the government agencies involved didn’t use the occasion to zero in on hot-button debates about how crypto assets should be regulated.
That has led to some celebration. “They’re not really crypto crimes—and that’s a big relief for the broader crypto industry,” is the summary offered by The Information. But don’t get it twisted. Beyond the court room, it’s clear that Bankman-Fried’s alleged fraud could not have been accomplished without crypto technology and the hype around it.
Consider the alleged fraud: The best picture we have so far is that FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange, took money from customers in exchange for purchases of, or bets on, a variety of crypto assets, while Alameda Research, Bankman-Fried’s hedge fund, also made bets on the exchange. The money that customers sent to FTX wound up at Alameda and was used to pay for the hedge fund’s failed bets, as well as a variety of personal and philanthropic expenses by Bankman-Fried and his inner circle. When enough customers asked for their money back, FTX declared bankruptcy.
Every con is a story. Why does the sucker part with their money? What compelled people to give $8 billion to FTX over its two and a half years of existence?
Analogous schemes in traditional finance, like commodities broker MF Global, which used $1.6 billion of customer funds to pay off a lost bet in 2011, or Bernie Madoff’s multi-decade Ponzi scheme, which robbed its victims of perhaps $19 billion before its collapse in 2008, did not manage to make off with so much money so fast. FTX depended on the crypto bubble and the perception that people were getting rich quick—an idea it drove with its own massive advertising campaign.
Of course, any asset class can be subject to bubble dynamics, from land in Florida to particularly attractive tulip bulbs. But usually there is some underlying material object, or at least a cash flow, behind the maniacal overbidding. The meme stock mania in recent years is likely to vaporize a lot of money, but however overvalued Gamestop’s stock is, the company still had revenue of more than $1 billion last quarter.
The underlying economic value behind FTX is a lot less clear.
The balance sheet that Bankman-Fried was using in his last vain attempts to raise money showed that the bulk of the company’s “assets” were crypto tokens that were either created by or dependent upon FTX.
This included most famously FTT, a token issued by FTX that was effectively linked to the exchange’s value. But it also included Serum, MAPS, and Solana—other coins whose value depended at best on realizing venture capital-style risk, and on the fact that a relatively small number of the coins were tradeable.
FTX’s customers probably didn’t realize how much of their deposits at the exchange were backed by these tokens. Indeed, the public revelation that Alameda had a huge position in FTT led to a fire sale of the tokens and the run that collapsed the exchange.
But the people operating FTX and Alameda, if you believe their public story about their actions reflecting mismanagement and not outright theft, thought the coins they helped create were sufficient collateral for obligations in US dollars. Cynical or not, absent their belief in tokenomics, this fraud would have crashed to a halt sooner than it did.
Some crypto true believers argue that FTX’s existence as a centralized exchange was the real problem here, and that truly decentralized on-chain transactions wouldn’t have led to similar dynamics. But they need to reckon with the fact that the value of their crypto investments is enormously dependent on the investor access provided by centralized exchanges like Coinbase, Binance, or FTX. Crypto as we know it seems to require exchanges and dollar-pegged stablecoins simply to function.
Another argument is that if crypto assets were properly regulated, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. That may be true, but it’s also not clear what “proper” regulation would be—or that much of crypto’s “value” as a speculative asset or tool for regulatory arbitrage might be eliminated by the kinds of disclosure and capital requirements that apply to traditional securities or commodities.
One thing to watch will be what kind of recovery there is for the victims of this alleged fraud. MF Global’s customers were made entirely whole, with the owners and counter-parties of the firm taking the losses. For the Madoff fraud, two different funds have together distributed more than $17 billion to victims and other creditors by clawing back cash from beneficiaries of the scheme.
Similar efforts will likely follow at FTX, but will there be anything left in the rubble for them to return to investors?