The rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried – the “boy wonder of crypto”

Why the fate of Sam Bankman-Fried reminds us to be wary of digital tokens and unregulated financial intermediaries.

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)

As the “boy wonder of crypto”, Sam Bankman-Fried “got richer faster than almost anyone in history, amassing an estimated $26bn in personal wealth”, appearing on countless magazine covers, and rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful, says the BBC

SBF, as he is known, was never shy about it: he wanted to get rich. “An overachieving child born to two overachieving parents,” SBF studied at MIT and fell under the spell of “effective altruism” – the idea that making as much money as you can, so you can give it away, is the best way to be charitable. At the age of 25, he founded Alameda Research to exploit arbitrage opportunities in cryptocurrencies. In 2019, he founded FTX, an exchange for digital tokens. Within months, the volume of daily trading hit $300m. 

His fall from grace was equally rapid. On 7 November 2022, a rival executive expressed concern about FTX’s finances, sparking a multibillion-dollar bank run. in November 2023, following 15 days of testimony, a jury took only four and a half hours to find him guilty of defrauding his customers and lenders, and of conspiring with others to commit securities fraud, commodities fraud and money laundering, says The Economist

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Just months into its existence, Alameda was borrowing customers’ deposits for its own purposes. To prove fraud, the prosecution often needed simply to use SBF’s own words against him. At one point his lawyer asked if a document was being offered for its truth. “Your honour, it’s the defendant’s own statements... No, it’s not being offered for its truth,” the prosecutor said. SBF faces further charges in a trial scheduled for March and a maximum sentence of 110 years. 

Still, SBF has provided investors and the financial system with “a valuable service”, says Bloomberg. Millions of “crypto believers” have entrusted their money to unregulated financial intermediaries that “don’t face the same requirements for safety [and] soundness... that banks and stock exchanges do”. Most of the tokens being traded are “fundamentally worthless”. 

FTX’s collapse has brought such truths to light. The hope is that legislators and regulators will now step in. In the meantime, just three letters might serve to warn people away: FTX.

This article was first published in MoneyWeek's magazine. Enjoy exclusive early access to news, opinion and analysis from our team of financial experts with a MoneyWeek subscription.

Related articles

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.