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The downfall of FTX's Sam Bankman-Fried sends shockwaves through the crypto world

Signage for the FTX Arena, where the Miami Heat basketball team plays, is visible Saturday in Miami. Sam Bankman-Fried received numerous plaudits as the head of cryptocurrency exchange FTX: the savior of crypto, the newest force in Democratic politics and potentially the world's first trillionaire. Now the comments about the 30-year-old aren't so kind.
Marta Lavandier
/
AP
Signage for the FTX Arena, where the Miami Heat basketball team plays, is visible Saturday in Miami. Sam Bankman-Fried received numerous plaudits as the head of cryptocurrency exchange FTX: the savior of crypto, the newest force in Democratic politics and potentially the world's first trillionaire. Now the comments about the 30-year-old aren't so kind.

NEW YORK — Sam Bankman-Fried received numerous plaudits as he rapidly achieved superstar status as the head of cryptocurrency exchange FTX: the savior of crypto, the newest force in Democratic politics and potentially the world's first trillionaire.

Now the comments about the 30-year-old Bankman-Fried range from bemused to hostile after FTX filed for bankruptcy protection Friday, leaving his investors and customers feeling duped and many others in the crypto world fearing the repercussions. Bankman-Fried himself could face civil or criminal charges.

"I've known him for a number of years and what just happened is just shocking," said Jeremy Allaire, the co-founder and CEO of cryptocurrency company Circle.

Under Bankman-Fried, FTX quickly grew to be the third-largest exchange by volume. The stunning collapse of this nascent empire has sent tsunami-like waves through the cryptocurrency industry, which has seen a fair share of volatility and turmoil this year, including a sharp decline in price for bitcoin and other digital assets. For some, the events are reminiscent of the domino-like failures of Wall Street firms during the 2008 financial crisis, particularly now that supposedly healthy firms like FTX are failing.

One venture capital fund wrote down investments in FTX worth over $200 million. The cryptocurrency lender BlockFi paused client withdrawals Friday after FTX sought bankruptcy protection. The Singapore-based exchange Crypto.com saw withdrawals increase this weekend for internal reasons but some of the action could be attributed to raw nerves from FTX.

"Sam what have you done?," tweeted Sean Ryan Evans, host of the cryptocurrency podcast Bankless, after the bankruptcy filing.

Bankman-Fried and his company are under investigation by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The investigations likely center on the possibility that the firm may have used customers' deposits to fund bets at Bankman-Fried's hedge fund, Alameda Research, a violation of U.S. securities law.

"This is the direct result of a rogue actor breaking every single basic rule of fiscal responsibility," said Patrick Hillman, chief strategy officer at Binance, FTX's biggest competitor. Early last week Binance appeared ready to step in to bail out FTX, but backed away after a review of FTX's books.

The ultimate impact of FTX's bankruptcy is uncertain, but its failure will likely result in the destruction of billions of dollars of wealth and even more skepticism for cryptocurrencies at a time when the industry could use a vote of confidence.

"I care because it's retail investors who suffer the most, and because too many people still wrongly associate bitcoin with the scammy 'crypto' space," said Cory Klippsten, CEO of Swan Bitcoin, who for months raised concerns about FTX's business model. Klippsten is publicly enthusiastic about bitcoin but has long had deep skepticism about other parts of the crypto universe.

Bankman-Fried founded FTX in 2019, and it grew rapidly — it was recently valued at $32 billion. The son of Stanford University professors, who was known to play the video game "League of Legends" during meetings, Bankman-Fried attracted investments from the highest echelons of Silicon Valley.

Sequoia Capital, which over the decades invested in Apple, Cisco, Google, Airbnb and YouTube, described their meeting with Bankman-Fried as likely "talking to the world's first trillionaire." Several of Sequoia's partners became enthusiastic about Bankman-Fried following a Zoom meeting in 2021. After several more meetings, Sequoia decided to invest in the company.

"I don't know how I know, I just do. SBF is a winner," wrote Adam Fisher, a business journalist who wrote a profile of Bankman-Fried for the firm, referring to Bankman-Fried by his popular online moniker. The article, published in late September, was removed from Sequoia's website.

Sequoia has written down its $213 million in investments to zero. A pension fund in Ontario, Canada wrote down its investment to zero as well.

In a terse statement, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund said, "Naturally, not all of the investments in this early-stage asset class perform to expectations."

But up until last week, Bankman-Fried was seen as a white knight for the industry. Whenever the crypto industry had one of its crises, Bankman-Fried was the person likely to fly in with a rescue plan. When online trading platform Robinhood was in financial straits earlier this year — collateral damage from the decline in stock and crypto prices — Bankman-Fried jumped in to buy a stake in the company as a sign of support.

When Bankman-Fried bought up the assets of bankrupt crypto firm Voyager Digital for $1.4 billion this summer, it brought a sense of relief to Voyager account holders, whose assets has been frozen since its own failure. That rescue is now in question.

FTX's failure started after the cryptocurrency news outlet CoinDesk published a story, based on a leaked balance sheet from Alameda Research. The story found that the relationship between FTX and Alameda Research was deeper and more intertwined than previously known, including that FTX was lending high quantities of its own token FTT to Alameda to help build up cash. It sparked mass withdrawals from FTX, causing the crypto firm to experience a very old financial problem: a bank run.

"FTX created a worthless token out of thin air and used it to make its balance sheet appear more robust than it really was," Klippsten said.

As king of crypto, Bankman-Fried influence was starting to pour into political and popular culture. FTX bought prominent sports sponsorships with Formula One Racing and bought the naming rights to an arena in Miami, and ran Super Bowl ads featuring "Seinfeld" creator Larry David. He pledged to donate $1 billion toward Democrats this election cycle — his actual donations were in the tens of millions — and prominent politicians like Bill Clinton were invited to speak at FTX conferences. Football star Tom Brady invested in FTX, as did his supermodel soon-to-be-ex-wife Gisele Bündchen.

Bankman-Fried had been the subject of some criticism before FTX collapsed. While he largely operated FTX out of U.S. jurisdiction from his headquarters in The Bahamas, Bankman-Fried was increasingly vocal about the need for more regulation of the cryptocurrency industry. Many supporters of crypto oppose government oversight. Now, FTX's collapse may have helped make the case for stricter regulation.

One of those critics was Binance founder and CEO Changpeng Zhao. The feud between the two billionaires spilled out onto Twitter, where Zhao and Bankman-Fried collectively commanded millions of followers. Zhao helped kickstart the withdrawals that doomed FTX when he said Binance would sell its holdings in FTX's crypto token FTT.

"What a s*** show ... and it's going to be crypto's fault (instead of one guys's fault)," Zhao wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press