FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried Charged With Criminal Fraud, Conspiracy
The charges are the latest twist in a saga that has rattled the world of cryptocurrencies
The charges are the latest twist in a saga that has rattled the world of cryptocurrencies
U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday charged FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried with eight counts of fraud and conspiracy, in what they called a scheme to defraud his crypto exchange’s customers and his hedge fund’s lenders.
An indictment by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, unsealed Tuesday morning, accuses him of misappropriating FTX.com customers’ deposits and using those to pay expenses and debts of Alameda Research, his crypto hedge fund. Mr. Bankman-Fried is charged as well with defrauding the U.S. and violating campaign finance rules for conspiring with others to make illegal political contributions.
The FTX collapse is “one of the biggest financial frauds in American history,” said Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Separately, John J. Ray III, the new chief executive of FTX, said at a congressional hearing Tuesday that FTX has incurred losses “in excess of $7 billion.” Mr. Ray, who oversaw the Enron Corp. bankruptcy in the early 2000s, said funds were taken from FTX and misused by affiliated trading firm Alameda Research, which incurred trading losses.
Mr. Ray described Enron as having been brought down by sophisticated people whose machinations aimed to keep transactions secret. FTX, by contrast, presents as “old-fashioned embezzlement,” Mr. Ray said. “It’s taking money from customers and using it for your own purpose.”
Also Tuesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged in a civil lawsuit that Mr. Bankman-Fried diverted customer funds from the start of FTX to support Alameda and to make venture investments, real-estate purchases and political donations. Another U.S. markets regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, filed a separate lawsuit Tuesday linking his alleged fraudulent conduct at Alameda and FTX to markets that the CFTC regulates.
“Sam Bankman-Fried built a house of cards on a foundation of deception while telling investors that it was one of the safest buildings in crypto,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said in a statement.
The charges are the latest twist in a saga that has rattled the world of cryptocurrencies, a largely unregulated market that boomed during the pandemic stimulus period but has been hammered this year by rising interest rates and the failure of several significant industry players.
FTX, one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world, filed for bankruptcy last month after the firm ran out of cash and a hastily arranged merger with rival Binance collapsed. The firm’s failure marked a sudden fall from grace for Mr. Bankman-Fried, who had sought to portray himself as the right-minded champion of an industry made up largely of outsiders.
In interviews since the filing, Mr. Bankman-Fried has said he bore responsibility for FTX’s collapse but denied he committed any fraud. Mark Cohen, a lawyer for Mr. Bankman-Fried, said in a statement Tuesday that his client “is reviewing the charges with his legal team and considering all of his legal options.”
Mr. Bankman-Fried, 30 years old, was arrested Monday in the Bahamas. He is expected to appear in a magistrate court on Tuesday in Nassau. A U.S. court official said that while the case had been assigned to a federal judge in Manhattan, there was no timing yet for Mr. Bankman-Fried’s extradition.
Prosecutors allege that from 2019 through November 2022, Mr. Bankman-Fried conspired with unnamed individuals to defraud both customers and lenders. He provided false and misleading information to lenders about Alameda Research’s financial condition, the indictment says.
While the 14-page indictment was light on detailed allegations, it says that on Sept. 18, 2022, Mr. Bankman-Fried caused an email to be sent to an FTX investor in New York that contained false information about FTX’s financial condition. In June 2022, the indictment says, Mr. Bankman-Fried and others misappropriated FTX.com customer deposits to satisfy Alameda Research’s loan obligations.
Mr. Bankman-Fried is also accused of defrauding the Federal Election Commission starting in 2020 by conspiring with others to illegally make contributions to candidates and political committees in the names of other people.
He and his associates contributed more than $70 million to election campaigns in recent years, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. He personally made $40 million in donations ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, most of which went to Democrats and liberal-leaning groups.
Mr. Ray, the FTX CEO, also said FTX is probing whether any loans taken by FTX executives were improperly used for campaign contributions.
However, Mr. Ray noted that tracing fund flows from FTX to executives and third parties was difficult given the lack of a paper trail for many corporate transactions at FTX.
“We’re dealing with a paperless bankruptcy,” he said. “It makes it very difficult to trace and track assets.”
The CFTC’s complaint contains a detailed discussion of events at Alameda and FTX and argues that the agency, generally less visible to the public than the SEC, also has jurisdiction over the case. The CFTC regulates U.S. derivatives markets, but it can go after fraud that affects certain commodity markets.
Besides giving Alameda access to its customer deposits, FTX granted the crypto hedge fund controlled by Mr. Bankman-Fried a series of trading-execution privileges that provided it an edge against other traders on the platform, the CFTC lawsuit alleges.
The CFTC said while institutional customers had their orders routed through the FTX system, Alameda was able “to bypass certain portions of the system and gain faster access.” It resulted in transaction orders being received several milliseconds faster than of other institutional clients.
The lawsuit also alleges Alameda wasn’t subject to certain automated verification processes, including on whether it had available funds before executing a transaction, giving it further advantage on the speed of its trades.
Tuesday’s congressional hearing was the first public appearance for Mr. Ray on FTX’s bankruptcy. Mr. Bankman-Fried had been scheduled to appear virtually at the same hearing, before he was arrested in the Bahamas at the request of the U.S. government. Bahamian police have said they would keep him in custody and they are awaiting an extradition order from U.S. authorities.
“The operation of Alameda really depended, based on the way it was operated, on the use of customer funds,” Mr. Ray said, responding to questions from members of Congress at the hearing. “There were virtually no internal controls…whatsoever.”
He also described numerous loans totaling billions of dollars taken out by Mr. Bankman-Fried, the former leader of FTX, from Alameda Research.
“We have no information at this time as to what purpose or use of those funds were,” Mr. Ray added. He said Mr. Bankman-Fried had signed as the issuer and recipient for some of the loans.
Mr. Ray also pushed back against recent statements made by Mr. Bankman-Fried that he had little to no involvement in the management of Alameda after passing control of the company to Caroline Ellison and Sam Trabucco, as well as Mr. Bankman-Fried’s statements that customer funds were passed to Alameda because of an accounting error.
“I don’t find those statements to be credible,” Mr. Ray said.
The arrest of Mr. Bankman-Fried is the latest case to highlight prosecutors’ push to bring white-collar cases to justice faster.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a September speech that making prosecutors and companies feel that they were “on the clock” in these cases was a key priority for the department.
“We need to do more and move faster,” she said. “In individual prosecutions, speed is of the essence.”
Former federal prosecutors say that high-profile financial cases with lots of victims can increase the pressure on authorities to bring cases more quickly.
“Appearances matter when it comes to criminal justice,” said Mark Chutkow, a former federal prosecutor who is currently head of government investigations and corporate compliance at Dykema Gossett PLLC.
If Mr. Bankman-Fried remains in the Bahamas while the details of his potential extradition to the U.S. are worked out, there’s only one prison there: the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services, commonly known as Fox Hill Prison.
Prison inmates reported removing human waste by buckets and developing bed sores from lying on the bare ground, according to a 2021 human rights report on the Bahamas by the U.S. State Department. Cells were also infested with rats, maggots and insects, the report said.
Inmates are supposed to get an hour every day outside for exercise. Due to staff shortages and overcrowding, there are times when inmates will only get 30 minutes a week, said Romona Farquharson, an attorney in the Bahamas.
The prison has different sections that separate those serving terms for violent crimes, for instance, from those who aren’t. But due to overcrowding, there have been instances where inmates awaiting trial for minor crimes have been sent to the maximum security facility, said Ms. Farquharson.
“I think they’ve got to be careful not to have him in really rough areas in the prison,” she said.
—Angel Au-Yeung and Ben Foldy contributed to this article.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
As geopolitical tensions rise, Taiwan is shifting its economy to rely more on the U.S. and other countries but at a cost
TAIPEI—For years, Beijing hoped to win control of Taiwan by convincing its people their economic futures were inextricably tied to China.
Instead, more Taiwanese businesses are pivoting to the U.S. and other markets, reducing the island democracy’s dependence on China and angering Beijing as it sees its economic leverage over Taiwan ebb.
In one sign of the shift, the U.S. replaced mainland China as the top buyer of Taiwanese agricultural products for the first time last year.
Electronics firms such as chip maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. are also selling more goods to American and other non-Chinese buyers, thanks in part to Washington’s chip restrictions and Apple’s bets on Taiwanese chips.
Overall, Taiwanese exports to the U.S. in the first 10 months of 2023 were more than 80% higher than in the same period of 2018, Taiwanese government data shows. Taiwanese exports to the mainland were 1% lower—a major change from a decade or so ago when China’s and Taiwan’s economies were rapidly integrating.
Taiwan’s outbound investment has also shifted. After flowing mostly to mainland China in the early 2000s, it has now moved decisively toward other destinations, including Southeast Asia, India and the U.S.
Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, which assembles iPhones in mainland China, is expanding in India and Vietnam after Apple began pushing its suppliers to diversify.
Chinese state media recently reported that China had opened tax and land-use probes into Foxconn. Though Taiwanese officials and analysts interpreted the probes as a sign that China wants Foxconn founder Terry Gou to drop plans to run in Taiwan’s presidential election in January, some have said Beijing may also be trying to pressure Foxconn into resisting decoupling with China.
“Any attempt to ‘talk down’ the mainland’s economy or to seek ‘decoupling’ is driven by ulterior motives and will be futile,” said a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office in September. “The mainland is always the best choice for Taiwanese compatriots and businesses.”
Fully decoupling from mainland China’s economy likely isn’t possible, and would be disastrous for Taiwan, not to mention China, even if it were.
Foxconn and other major Taiwanese companies depend heavily on China for parts, testing and buyers. Some 25% of Taiwan’s electronic-parts imports still come from the mainland.
If China’s weakened economy returns to strong growth, it could shift the calculus back in favor of the mainland, where the Communist Party claims Taiwan despite never having ruled it. About 21% of Taiwan’s total goods trade this year has been with mainland China, versus 14% for the U.S., though the U.S. share has risen from 11% in 2018.
“My hunch is that the large manufacturing sectors will try to stay in the Chinese market, even with harsh conditions,” said Alexander Huang, director of the international affairs department of the opposition Kuomintang Party, whose supporters include business people with mainland ties. “If you talk to those business owners, they say, ‘Nah, no way will I give it to my competitors.’”
Even so, many forces are pushing Taiwan to rewire its economic relationship with China.
Trump-era tariffs and Biden administration export controls have raised the cost of sourcing from China, and in some cases prohibited it. U.S. firms are pushing their Taiwanese suppliers to diversify sourcing, and rising wages in China have made it less attractive than before.
Long-running shifts in Taiwanese sentiment toward China—and China’s own efforts to punish the island using its economic leverage—are also factors. China has banned Taiwanese agricultural products such as pineapple and, in 2022, grouper fish, and restricted outbound tourism to Taiwan.
Those restrictions to some degree have backfired, pushing Taiwanese businesses to look elsewhere.
Chang Chia-sheng, who runs a fish farming operation in Taiwan, said his main export target a decade ago was mainland China. But as geopolitical tensions climbed, he looked elsewhere. Sales to Americans have jumped fivefold since 2018, he said. “In the U.S., things just seem to work out more easily,” Chang said.
The U.S. and Taiwan reached an agreement in May on a number of trade and investment measures to deepen ties, though the deal stopped short of reducing tariffs.
In the June quarter of 2023, 63% of revenue at TSMC, which makes most of the world’s most cutting-edge logic chips, came from the U.S., up from 54% in the same period in 2018, according to S&P Global data. Just 12% of TSMC’s revenue now comes from Chinese buyers, down from 22% in the second quarter of 2018.
Taiwan’s government is also encouraging closer economic links with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Its “New Southbound Policy,” rolled out in 2016, has been the subject of fierce debate in Taiwan, with the Kuomintang Party saying steps to boost relations—like handing out scholarships—aren’t worth the cost.
Exports to “New Southbound” partners have risen, however, to $66 billion in the first nine months of 2023, about 50% higher than the same period in 2016.
“Frankly speaking, we’re responding reactively” to the need for more diverse trading partners, Taiwan’s Economic Minister Wang Mei-hua said. “Taiwan needs to manage the risks on its own, but we also need our allies to join us more in mitigating these risks.”
Together, the U.S. and the six largest Southeast Asian economies accounted for 36% of Taiwanese exports in the third quarter of 2023, according to data from CEIC, surpassing the percentage sent to mainland China and Hong Kong on a quarterly basis for the first time since 2002.
In September, Taiwan sent less than 21% of its exports to the mainland, the lowest percentage since the global financial crisis.
Taiwanese foreign investment into mainland China, steady at around $10 billion a year for most of the early 2010s, plummeted in late 2018 and has since been running at about half that level, according to Taiwanese government data. In 2023 so far, just 13% of Taiwan’s investment went to mainland China; 25% went to other Asian locations, and nearly half went to the U.S.
A survey of Taiwanese businesses conducted last year on behalf of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, found that nearly 60% had moved or were considering moving some production or sourcing out of China—a significantly higher rate than European or American firms.
Jay Yen, chief executive of Yen and Brothers, a Taiwanese frozen-food processing company, said his firm received a government subsidy of around $75,000 to market his products to American consumers. China now only accounts for about 3% of its revenue, he said.
That said, “if you really have to consider the risks of a war between the U.S. and China and its potential impact on Taiwan, you might want to place your bets on a third country—neither China nor the U.S.,” Yen added.
After China began to open up its economy in the late 1970s, Taiwanese businesses were among the first investors.
By the 2000s, China seemed to be succeeding in its strategy of integrating the two economies, with more than 28% of Taiwan’s exports going to the mainland in 2010, from less than 4% a decade earlier.
Direct flights between the two sides were normalised for the first time in decades. Mainland tourists were allowed to visit Taiwan on their own.
By 2014, the tide was turning as more Taiwanese grew worried about over dependence on China. Student demonstrators protested against a trade pact, later abandoned, that would have deepened ties with China. President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office in 2016, has pushed to diversify Taiwan’s economy.
China has responded by moving trade issues more into the spotlight.
In April, it opened an investigation into Taiwanese trade restrictions that it says limit exports of more than 2,400 items from the mainland to the island in violation of World Trade Organization rules. In October, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced the probe would be extended until Jan. 12—the day before Taiwan’s coming election.
Taiwan’s government has called the probe politically motivated.
Chinese officials have implied that Beijing could suspend preferential tariff rates for some Taiwanese goods in China under a 2010 deal signed when Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou was president. Beijing has also reacted angrily to Taiwan’s recent trade agreement with the U.S.
For Taiwanese companies, building and operating new factories in places other than China isn’t cheap or easy. Protests have at times disrupted operations at Indian plants operated by Foxconn and Wistron, another Apple supplier. In September, a fire halted production at a Taiwanese facility in Tamil Nadu.
Still, some Taiwanese businesspeople have clearly soured on China.
“The electronics industry has already become a Chinese empire, not a Taiwanese one,” says Leo Chiu, who worked in mainland China in quality control for an electronics manufacturer for 14 years before concluding he couldn’t move up further there and returning to Taiwan in 2019. Many of his old colleagues have left, he said.
“If Xi Jinping steps down, there’s still a chance it could change,” says Chiu. “But I think it’s very hard.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’