FTX Tapped Into Customer Accounts to Fund Risky Bets, Setting Up Its Downfall
FTX’s chief executive told investors this week that an affiliated trading firm owes the crypto exchange about $10 billion
FTX’s chief executive told investors this week that an affiliated trading firm owes the crypto exchange about $10 billion
Crypto exchange FTX lent billions of dollars worth of customer assets to fund risky bets by its affiliated trading firm, Alameda Research, setting the stage for the exchange’s implosion, a person familiar with the matter said.
FTX Chief Executive Sam Bankman-Fried said in investor meetings this week that Alameda owes FTX about $10 billion, people familiar with the matter said. FTX extended loans to Alameda using money that customers had deposited on the exchange for trading purposes, a decision that Mr. Bankman-Fried described as a poor judgment call, one of the people said.
All in all, FTX had $16 billion in customer assets, the people said, so FTX lent more than half of its customer funds to its sister company Alameda.
Alameda took out additional loans from other financial firms, according to people familiar with the matter. As of Monday, Alameda owed $1.5 billion in loans to counterparties outside of FTX, the people said.
An FTX spokesman declined to comment.
FTX paused customer withdrawals earlier this week after it was hit with roughly $5 billion worth of withdrawal requests on Sunday, according to a Thursday morning tweet from Mr. Bankman-Fried. The crisis forced FTX to scramble for an emergency investment.
FTX struck a deal to sell itself to its giant rival Binance on Tuesday, but Binance walked away from the deal the next day, saying FTX’s problems were “beyond our control or ability to help.”
The failure of FTX to fill withdrawal requests shocked crypto investors and badly tarnished the reputation of Mr. Bankman-Fried, who had embraced regulation of digital currencies and branded himself as a crypto entrepreneur driven by ethics and philanthropy.
“An exchange really shouldn’t have problems getting its customers their deposits,” said Frances Coppola, a U.K.-based economist. “It shouldn’t be doing anything with those assets. They should literally be sitting there so people can use them.”
As questions were brewing about FTX’s health on Monday, Mr. Bankman-Fried tweeted: “FTX has enough to cover all client holdings. We don’t invest client assets (even in treasuries).” He later deleted the tweet.
On Thursday morning Mr. Bankman-Fried said in a tweet that Alameda Research was winding down trading.
In traditional markets, brokers must keep client funds segregated from other company assets and regulators can punish violations. In 2013, for instance, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission fined brokerage MF Global $100 million for misuse of customer funds during its messy collapse two years earlier—a downfall also driven by risky bets gone wrong.
But MF Global customers were ultimately made whole after a years long bankruptcy process. With FTX, operating in the Wild West of crypto, it is unclear whether customers will ever get their money back.
The revelation of the loans suggests that the root of FTX’s downfall lay in its relationship with Alameda, a firm known for aggressive trading strategies funded by borrowed money. Some crypto traders have voiced wariness of the affiliation, worrying that it posed a conflict of interest for an exchange to be attached to a trading business.
Mr. Bankman-Fried founded and is the majority owner of both firms. He was CEO of Alameda until last year, when he stepped back from the role to focus on FTX.
Alameda’s CEO is Caroline Ellison, a Stanford University graduate who like Mr. Bankman-Fried previously worked for quantitative trading firm Jane Street Capital. Alameda is based in Hong Kong, where FTX was headquartered before relocating to the Bahamas last year.
In theory, exchanges like FTX make money by allowing customers to trade cryptocurrencies and collecting fees for transactions. Alameda pursued a variety of trading strategies to make money from volatility, a riskier business model.
Among the strategies that Alameda engaged in after Mr. Bankman-Fried founded the firm in 2017 was arbitrage—buying a coin in one location and selling it elsewhere for more. One early winning trade involved buying bitcoin on U.S. exchanges and selling in Japan, where it commanded a premium over its U.S. price.
Another business at Alameda is market-making—offering to buy and sell assets on crypto exchanges throughout the day, and collecting a spread between the buying and selling price.
More recently Alameda has become one of the biggest players in “yield farming,” or investing in tokens that pay interest-rate-like rewards, according to analysts who used public blockchain data to track the firm’s activities. One crypto wallet controlled by Alameda has generated more than $550 million in trading profit since 2020, according to blockchain analytics firm Nansen.
Yield farming can be risky because the tokens often have an initial run-up in price as investors pile in, seeking the rewards, then a crash as they get out.
“It’s essentially like picking up pennies before a steamroller,” said independent blockchain analyst Andrew Van Aken. “You use dollars, or stablecoins, to get these very speculative coins.”
—Peter Rudegeair and Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this article.
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Crypto’s lack of connections with traditional finance means its problems haven’t spilled over to the economy
This year’s crypto collapse has all the hallmarks of a classic banking crisis: runs, fire sales, contagion.
What it doesn’t have are banks.
Check out the bankruptcy filings of crypto platforms Voyager Digital Holdings Inc., Celsius Network LLC and FTX Trading Ltd. and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, and you won’t find any banks listed among their largest creditors.
While bankruptcy filings aren’t entirely clear, they describe many of the largest creditors as customers or other crypto-related companies. Crypto companies, in other words, operate in a closed loop, deeply interconnected within that loop but with few apparent connections of significance to traditional finance. This explains how an asset class once worth roughly $3 trillion could lose 72% of its value, and prominent intermediaries could go bust, with no discernible spillovers to the financial system.
“Crypto space…is largely circular,” Yale University economist Gary Gorton and University of Michigan law professor Jeffery Zhang write in a forthcoming paper. “Once crypto banks obtain deposits from investors, these firms borrow, lend, and trade with themselves. They do not interact with firms connected to the real economy.”
A few years from now, things might have been different, given the intensifying pressure on regulators and bankers to embrace crypto. The crypto meltdown may have prevented that—and a much wider crisis.
Crypto has long been marketed as an unregulated, anonymous, frictionless, more accessible alternative to traditional banks and currencies. Yet its mushrooming ecosystem looks a lot like the banking system, accepting deposits and making loans. Messrs. Gorton and Zhang write, “Crypto lending platforms recreated banking all over again… if an entity engages in borrowing and lending, it is economically equivalent to a bank even if it’s not labeled as one.”
And just like the banking system, crypto is leveraged and interconnected, and thus vulnerable to debilitating runs and contagion. This year’s crisis began in May when TerraUSD, a purported stablecoin—i.e., a cryptocurrency that aimed to sustain a constant value against the dollar—collapsed as investors lost faith in its backing asset, a token called Luna. Rumours that Celsius had lost money on Terra and Luna led to a run on its deposits and in July Celsius filed for bankruptcy protection.
Three Arrows, a crypto hedge fund that had invested in Luna, had to liquidate. Losses on a loan to Three Arrows and contagion from Celsius forced Voyager into bankruptcy protection.
Meanwhile FTX’s trading affiliate Alameda Research and Voyager had lent to each other, and Alameda and Celsius also had exposure to each other. But it was the linkages between FTX and Alameda that were the two companies’ undoing. Like many platforms, FTX issued its own cryptocurrency, FTT. After this was revealed to be Alameda’s main asset, Binance, another major platform, said it would dump its own FTT holdings, setting off the run that triggered FTX’s collapse.
Genesis Global Capital, another crypto lender, had exposure to both Three Arrows and Alameda. It has suspended withdrawals and sought outside cash in the wake of FTX’s demise. BlockFi, another crypto lender with exposure to FTX and Alameda, is preparing a bankruptcy filing, the Journal has reported.
The density of connections between these players is nicely illustrated with a sprawling diagram in an October report by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which brings together federal financial regulators.
To historians, this litany of contagion and collapse is reminiscent of the free banking era from 1837 to 1863 when banks issued their own bank notes, fraud proliferated, and runs, suspensions of withdrawals, and panics occurred regularly. Yet while those crises routinely walloped business activity, crypto’s has largely passed the economy by.
Some investors, from unsophisticated individuals to big venture-capital and pension funds, have sustained losses, some life-changing. But these are qualitatively different from the sorts of losses that threaten the solvency of major lending institutions and the broader financial system’s stability.
To be sure, some loan or investment losses by banks can’t be ruled out. Banks also supply crypto companies with custodial and payment services and hold their cash, such as to back stablecoins. Some small banks that cater to crypto companies have been buffeted by large outflows of deposits.
Traditional finance had little incentive to build connections to crypto because, unlike government bonds or mortgages or commercial loans or even derivatives, crypto played no role in the real economy. It’s largely been shunned as a means of payment except where untraceability is paramount, such as money laundering and ransomware. Much-hyped crypto innovations such as stablecoins and DeFi, a sort of automated exchange, mostly facilitate speculation in crypto rather than useful economic activity.
Crypto’s grubby reputation repelled mainstream financiers like Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, and made regulators deeply skittish about bank involvement. In time this was bound to change, not because crypto was becoming useful but because it was generating so much profit for speculators and their supporting ecosystem.
Several banks have made private-equity investments in crypto companies and many including J.P. Morgan are investing in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology underlying cryptocurrencies. A flood of crypto lobbying money was prodding Congress to create a regulatory framework under which crypto, having failed as an alternative to the dollar, could become a riskier, less regulated alternative to equities.
Now, stained by bankruptcy and scandal, cryptocurrency will have to wait longer—perhaps forever—to be fully embraced by traditional banking. An end to banking crises required the replacement of private currencies with a single national dollar, the creation of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort, deposit insurance and comprehensive regulation.
It isn’t clear, though, that the same recipe should be applied to crypto: Effective regulation would eliminate much of the efficiency and anonymity that explain its appeal. And while the U.S. economy clearly needed a stable banking system and currency, it will do just fine without crypto.
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