MoneyWeek's people of 2023

What do Taylor Swift, Sam Altman, Charlie Munger and Sam Bankman-Fried have in common? They're all people who moved markets over the past year.

collage containing photos of taylor swift (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty), Charlie Munger (Photo by Bonnie Schiffman), Sam Altman (Photo by Joel Saget) and SBF (Photo by Jeenah Moon for Bloomberg)
Clockwise: Charlie Munger, Taylor Swift, Sam Altman and Sam Bankman-Fried
(Image credit: Frazer Harrison/Bonnie Schiffman/Joel Saget/Jeenah Moon for Bloomberg/Getty Images)

What do Taylor Swift, Sam Altman, Charlie Munger and Sam Bankman-Fried have in common? They are key figures who moved financial markets in 2023.

Sam Altman

Sam Altman | The Oppenheimer of the digital age
Who was the most significant CEO of the year? It’s a “no-brainer”, says MarketWatch

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman addresses a speech during a meeting at the Station F in Paris on May 26 2023 Altman the boss of OpenAI the firm behind the massively popular ChatGPT bot said on May 26 2023 in Paris that his firms technology would not destroy the job market as he sought to calm fears about the march of artificial intelligence AI Photo by JOEL SAGET AFP Photo by JOEL SAGETAFP via Getty Images

(Image credit: JOEL SAGET / AFP/Getty)

In the 12 months since OpenAI publicly launched its ChatGPT chatbot, and watched it go viral, it has upended the established pecking order of Silicon Valley, inspired a surge in AI investment that revitalised the flagging US stockmarket, and turned established notions of what the future might look like on their head. 

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No product has had as much impact since the debut of the iPhone, and Sam Altman is “the public face of this transformation”. Altman, 38, led OpenAI out from the ivory tower – it started out as a small non-profit laboratory dedicated to academic research. He is a serial entrepreneur, known more for his investment nous than feats of engineering. His biggest early success was co-founding OK Cupid, a dating platform sold to Match for $50m in 2011. He went on to become CEO of the tech incubator Y Combinator, playing a pivotal role in establishing Airbnb, Pinterest, Asana and Reddit among others. “His superpower,” remarked one associate, “is getting people on side, shaping narratives, pushing situations into the shape that works for him”. New York Magazine called him “the Oppenheimer of our age”. 

Still, it was the frenzied soap opera surrounding Altman’s bombshell firing, and then rehiring, in November that really established his own market value – even if he found the shock “incredibly painful”. Ultimately, no one connected to OpenAI (not least Microsoft) dared risk his defection to a rival.

She was like the weather, she was everywhere

Time magazine

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift | A phenomenal triumph
“She was like the weather, she was everywhere,” observed Time magazine, as it named Taylor Swift its Person of the Year.

Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Taylor Swift

(Image credit: Buda Mendes/TAS23 / Contributor)

“Swift’s accomplishments as an artist – culturally, critically and commercially – are so legion that to recount them seems almost beside the point.” 

In 2023 she capitalised on them, says The New York Times. Her Eras Tour was so popular it proved too much for ticket broker Ticketmaster to handle and she re-recorded her 2014 album 1989, which then broke sales records, sealing her reputation as a super-smooth business operator. 

Swift, whose career began at 14 when she persuaded her parents to move to Nashville, has long been known for taking on – and beating – the suits of the music industry in her quest to retain control of her music rights and back catalogue. But latterly she has also emerged as “an unparalleled marketing genius”, says Fortune

“While many artists follow a tried-and-true playbook – social post, press junket, tour – Swift employs an ever-changing burlesque act of selectively revealing details while maintaining an aura of mystery and excitement.” 

She is constantly reinventing herself. While these “savvy image shifts” keep existing “Swifties” hooked, she uses carefully selected “strategic collaborations” to broaden her fan base – partnering with brands such as Coca-Cola and Apple that resonate with her image and values. 

According to Forbes, Swift’s empire is now valued at about $1bn. Her phenomenal legacy – as a songwriter, artist, businesswoman, influencer – is secure.

Charlie Munger

Charlie Munger | The Lennon to Warren Buffett’s McCartney
The death of Charlie Munger, aged 99, robbed the financial world of its most enduring and unique double-act. For nearly 60 years, Munger was Warren Buffett’s business partner, consigliere and friend, says The Economist

Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger Speaks At Daily Journal's Annual Meeting

(Image credit: Bloomberg / Contributor)

When the Berkshire Hathaway “faithful” flocked to the company’s annual jamboree in Omaha, Nebraska, they came for Buffett’s “folksy genius” and for the more taciturn Munger’s “killer zingers” – pithy one-liners intended to seal a debate. But he was a lot more than just Warren Buffett’s sidekick. Indeed, Buffett, who nicknamed him the “Abominable No-man” when they disagreed over investments, credited him with Berkshire’s strategy “blueprint”. 

Munger’s great contribution, says the Financial Times, was steering Buffett away from the “cigar-butt” theory inherited from his mentor, Benjamin Graham – that it was worth buying any low-valued stock if you could get “one last drag” from it. 

“Forget buying fair businesses at wonderful prices,” was his view. “Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” 

Without that insight, Berkshire wouldn’t have evolved into the $780bn powerhouse it became. 

Munger, who began his career as a lawyer, shared common roots in Omaha with Buffett, but the pair didn’t meet until adulthood. Both were impressed with each other, but it was their shared sense of humour that really clicked. Like the best duos – think Lennon and McCartney – “their strengths complemented each other”, says The Economist, “producing something almost magical”.

A flimsy front for rampant, risk-taking

The Guardian

Sam Bankman-Fried

Sam Bankman-Fried | The rise and fall of the crypto king
A mere six months before the implosion of his FTX crypto exchange in November 2022, Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) was compared to the legendary US banker John Pierpont Morgan: “the last man standing” in crypto.

Former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried arrives for a bail hearing at Manhattan Federal Court on August 11 2023 in New York City Federal prosecutors are asking US District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan to revoke BankmanFrieds bail and to be jailed until his October criminal trial BankmanFried who has pleaded not guilty to multiple conspiracy and fraud charges was accused of witness tampering after the New York Times published a story featuring personal documents of Caroline Ellison former Alameda Research CEO Judge Kaplan will also hear arguments on the gag order placed on BankmanFried that was placed as part of his bail agreement for the alleged witness tampering Photo by Michael M SantiagoGetty Images

(Image credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Yet the reality behind his eccentric-genius façade was that his empire – FTX and its sister hedge fund Alameda – was “a flimsy front for rampant, irresponsible risk-taking” and fraud, says The Guardian.

“In a way, his greatest feat of genius was being so eccentric that he threw so many people” off the scent.

SBF graduated from MIT in 2014 and took a job as a trader at Jane Street Capital, before setting up a fund to arbitrage opportunities in the fragmented nascent crypto market in 2019 – taking several Jane Street colleagues with him. In 2020, FTX was worth “just” $1.2bn, says the Financial Times. By 2022, its valuation in funding rounds had hit $32bn.

SBF was wacky, but he also conveyed respectability – until a spike in withdrawals by customers exposed an $8bn hole in FTX’s accounts. By then, says The Economist, many close to SBF “knew what was going on” and foresaw how it would end.

“Those who did not were horrified when they found out.” So was the jury, which took just four hours to convict him on seven complicated charges of financial fraud this November.

The crypto king’s dazzling rise and fall took just over three years. He now faces a maximum sentence of 110 years in jail to ponder it.

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Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.