Sam Bankman-Fried, convicted of an epic fraud that led to the collapse of his FTX exchange, may go down in history as the person who did the most to undermine the crypto market’s credibility. If so, it will also have provided a valuable service to investors and the entire financial system.
The story that emerged in U.S. District Court in Manhattan was eye-opening. Bankman-Fried portrayed himself as a model citizen and savior of the crypto world, securing multimillion-dollar marketing deals with the likes of Tom Brady and Major League Baseball, advising Congress on regulation, and bailing out smaller competitors. Meanwhile, according to executives close to him, he committed a huge fraud: He exempted his own hedge fund from FTX’s collateral rules at the expense of customers and manipulated financial reports to cover up billions of dollars in misappropriated funds. His best defense was that he was too clueless to be held criminally responsible.
His co-conspirators – several of whom entered into cooperation agreements with prosecutors in the case – played their part in furthering the fraud. Judges should consider the magnitude of this criminality when deciding what sentences to impose and ensure that Bankman-Fried’s accomplices are held fully accountable.
The trial also highlighted the gullibility with which millions of crypto devotees trusted their money to organizations like FTX. These are the same problematic financial intermediaries that blockchain technology was supposed to displace, only worse: they are relatively opaque, they combine functions (such as trading and holding customer funds) that create strong conflicts of interest, and do so They do not have to face the requirements for security, soundness and investor protection that traditional intermediaries such as banks and stock exchanges impose. Yet companies like Binance, Coinbase and Kraken still process billions of dollars worth of transactions every day.
If anything good comes from crypto, it will have little to do with the market as it exists now. Since there is none of the real cash flow flowing into stocks or bonds, most tokens are essentially worthless – unless you want to launder money, send funds to Hamas, manipulate markets, or engage in zero-sum speculation. Ultimately, institutions such as central banks could use the underlying technology to make it easier to use and send money across borders. But if so, Bitcoin holders will not be the main beneficiaries.
At least in this regard, Bankman-Fried’s ouster could still have some advantages. If he had been less of a gambler – if he had been content to simply collect fees rather than make extreme one-sided bets – FTX could have survived much longer and the crypto market could have grown much larger. As the numbers continued to rise, systemically important financial institutions may have found lending against cryptocurrencies irresistible – so the impact would have been much worse when the bubble finally burst.
The perpetrators of this fraud were numerous, and Bankman-Fried should not be viewed as the only villain. But as this cautionary tale comes to an end, the hope is that lawmakers and regulators will put in place the necessary safeguards to protect investors, block criminals and curb any systemic risks in the crypto space. In the meantime, if you want to warn people, you might just need three letters: FTX.
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