The 30-Year-Old Spending US$1 Billion To Save Crypto
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The 30-Year-Old Spending US$1 Billion To Save Crypto

Sam Bankman-Fried, owner of an expanding crypto empire, is trying to bail out the industry after a sharp downturn.

By ALEXANDER OSIPOVICH
Wed, Aug 24, 2022 9:42amGrey Clock 7 min

Crypto is ailing. Sam Bankman-Fried is betting a billion dollars he can fix it.

The chief executive of cryptocurrency exchange FTX Trading Ltd. has appointed himself the industry’s saviour—and crypto investors are closely watching his moves after months of market carnage. This year, he bailed out a troubled digital-currency lender and tried to stabilize another. He acquired crypto exchanges in Canada and Japan. He appeared in magazine ads opposite supermodel Gisele Bündchen in a bid to keep mainstream investors enthusiastic about crypto despite the downturn.

That kind of speed is routine for Mr. Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old billionaire with a mop of curly hair who sleeps a few hours a night and toys with a fidget spinner during interviews. Last year, when regulatory scrutiny of crypto led Mr. Bankman-Fried to move FTX’s headquarters from Hong Kong to the Bahamas, dozens of employees relocated to the island nation within about a month.

Mr. Bankman-Fried says his ultimate goal is to bring crypto to the masses. He wants to make FTX a household name and use the technology behind bitcoin to reinvent traditional finance, including the stock market and ordinary consumer payments.

He has a lot of work to do. More than a decade after bitcoin’s birth, proponents still struggle to explain the value of digital currencies to a broad audience. Bitcoin has fallen nearly 70% from its November peak and the crash has erased $2 trillion of value from the crypto market, hurting millions of investors.

Not all of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s moves have paid off. An investment in Japan has proved rocky for FTX. And the trading firm he owns alongside FTX, Alameda Research, took losses when it tried to prop up troubled crypto lender Voyager Digital Ltd. Alameda lent Voyager $75 million and increased its stake in the company to 9.5%—only for Voyager to file for bankruptcy less than two weeks later.

“We want to do what we can to stem contagion, and sometimes that’s going to mean that we try to help out in cases where it’s not enough,” Mr. Bankman-Fried said. “If that never happened, I’d feel that we were being way too conservative.”

Like other crypto exchanges, FTX’s core business is to facilitate the buying and selling of digital currencies, and it takes a small cut of transactions. The firm has grown into a juggernaut since it was founded three years ago. With only about 300 employees, FTX is the world’s third-biggest crypto exchange by volume, doing US$9.4 billion worth of trades on an average day, according to data provider CoinGecko.

The firm made net income of US$388 million on $1.02 billion of revenue last year, according to a person familiar with the matter. It has stayed profitable in 2022 even as crypto prices slumped, Mr. Bankman-Fried said. FTX was valued at US$32 billion during its last funding round in January.

Now, with bitcoin hovering around $21,000—roughly in line with its level in late 2020, before last year’s big bull market—Mr. Bankman-Fried says the worst is over.

“Anything could happen, obviously, but as far as I know, we’ve seen most of the contagion already flushed out of the system,” he said.

Expanding an empire

The plea for help from the CEO of BlockFi Inc., a digital-currency lender, came on a Saturday evening in June. Mr. Bankman-Fried saw the message around 11 p.m. after playing padel, a tennis-like sport, with colleagues. He jumped into his Toyota Corolla with fellow FTX executive Ramnik Arora, turned on the air conditioning and returned the call.

BlockFi was essentially a crypto bank, taking deposits and lending them to borrowers that use the funds for trading purposes. In return, depositors earned interest on their digital money—usually at much higher rates than traditional banks offered on dollar deposits. BlockFi and other crypto lenders did brisk business until May, when the swift collapse of two cryptocurrencies called TerraUSD and Luna sent shock waves through the market and blew up hedge fund Three Arrows Capital Ltd., one of the biggest borrowers in crypto.

Fears of a 2008-style financial contagion spread. On June 12, a popular crypto lender called Celsius Network LLC suspended withdrawals. Other lenders, including BlockFi and Voyager, were threatened with the crypto equivalent of a run on the bank.

The crash set off rounds of calls into FTX’s headquarters in the Bahamas. Around 15 crypto firms sought money from FTX during a two-week stretch in June, including “miners” who run computer algorithms to generate bitcoin, as well as Celsius itself, Mr. Arora recalled.

Celsius, which has since filed for bankruptcy, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

FTX concluded that Celsius was beyond saving, FTX executives said, but that BlockFi was healthier. Following a Sunday morning Zoom meeting with BlockFi’s leadership on June 19, the day after the initial call from his car, Mr. Bankman-Fried decided to push for a deal.

By throwing BlockFi a lifeline, Mr. Bankman-Fried also seized the opportunity to expand his empire.

In the final deal unveiled on July 1, FTX agreed to loan BlockFi $400 million with an option to buy the firm for up to US$240 million. That price is a steal compared with the $4.75 billion valuation that BlockFi reached in July 2021, according to PitchBook data.

“It’s certainly not the outcome that we were expecting last summer,” BlockFi CEO Zac Prince said, but he called the FTX deal a win for the company and its clients. Unlike other offers BlockFi received, which could have forced BlockFi’s retail customers to lose part of their deposits, the FTX transaction was designed to keep depositors whole.

BlockFi says it has more than 650,000 funded accounts. If FTX ends up buying BlockFi, it will expand into the lending market, adding the crypto version of a big bank to Mr. Bankman-Fried’s portfolio.

Mr. Bankman-Fried says he wants to turn FTX into a sort of financial supermarket, offering everything from lending to stock trading to payments.

“The idea generating this is, ‘What do you actually want to do with your money, as the typical consumer? What are the things that are actually valuable for your day-to-day life?’” he said.

Mr. Bankman-Fried is a longtime vegan. He majored in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for quantitative-trading giant Jane Street Capital for three years before diving into crypto. He is the son of two professors at Stanford Law School.

Bloomberg recently estimated his net worth at $11.9 billion, down from nearly $26 billion last year before the crypto crash. He is an adherent of effective altruism, a philosophical movement that says individuals should maximize their positive impact on society by making substantial money and giving it away. His favoured causes include pandemic prevention and preventing artificial intelligence from harming humanity.

People close to him express surprise at how naturally Mr. Bankman-Fried became a public figure. He has become a regular in Washington, testifying before Congress, promoting FTX’s agenda and lobbying for the crypto industry.

“He has had to transition from talking to a purely crypto audience to dealing with lawmakers, journalists and the public,” said Chris McCann, a partner at Race Capital, an early investor in FTX. “In 2019 he didn’t have a lot of those skill sets. He was much more of a shy, quirky, geeky person.”

Mr. Bankman-Fried’s first headquarters was a rented house in Berkeley, Calif., where he started Alameda Research in 2017—outfitted with desks and computers bought on Amazon. He later moved Alameda to Hong Kong, where crypto regulation was lighter than in the U.S.

Alameda sought to capture profits from the bitcoin market, where a mishmash of exchanges enabled arbitrage opportunities—the ability to buy a coin in one location and sell it elsewhere for more. One early strategy involved buying bitcoin in the U.S. and then selling it in Japan, where it commanded a premium.

He launched FTX in 2019, betting that his team could build a better exchange than the incumbents. Last year, amid mounting scrutiny of crypto by global regulators, Mr. Bankman-Fried decided to move FTX’s headquarters to the Bahamas, where the government had established a crypto-friendly regulatory regime.

Today FTX is based in an office park ringed by palm trees and dominated by a sun-baked parking lot. Mr. Bankman-Fried lives in a nearby luxury apartment complex. Although he has a reputation for living frugally—he has long lived with housemates and often sleeps on a beanbag at work—real-estate records show a unit of FTX paid $30 million for a five-bedroom penthouse there.

Mr. Bankman-Fried said he’s one of 10 FTX colleagues who share the apartment. “Obviously, it would be a ridiculous place for me to be living alone,” he said.

‘Salvage our business’

FTX expanded earlier this year by acquiring Japanese crypto exchange Liquid, which was hit by a $97 million hack in August 2021.

Shortly after the hack, Seth Melamed, then a Liquid executive, was getting on a plane to Tokyo. Liquid faced insolvency, customers were angry, and Mr. Melamed worried that Japanese police might arrest him at the airport. He wrote to Mr. Bankman-Fried on the Telegram messaging app.

His note read: “Fully understand this unusual, but if FTX would consider investing or acquiring Liquid it would salvage our business and benefit the crypto community more broadly.”

The plane had no Wi-Fi. When it landed, he was relieved to find no police waiting for him and a response from Mr. Bankman-Fried: “happy to take a look!”

A few days later, FTX agreed to loan Liquid $120 million, keeping it afloat and setting the stage for the takeover.

It wasn’t an entirely smooth acquisition. FTX ended up losing thousands of Japanese customers who were already using FTX and refused to move over to the local unit regulated by Japan’s Financial Services Agency, a person familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Melamed, now chief operating officer of FTX Japan, said, “We are confident we can return to previous levels of activity by Japanese users at FTX before the end of this year and surpass this by 2023.”

In June, FTX agreed to buy Canadian crypto exchange Bitvo Inc. FTX has also amassed licenses to provide financial services in Australia, Dubai and the European Union as part of an international push.

FTX’s ambitions extend to traditional markets. After buying a registered U.S. brokerage firm last year, it recently allowed American customers to trade stocks on its app alongside bitcoin. In May, Mr. Bankman-Fried spent $648 million of his personal fortune to buy a 7.6% stake in Robinhood Markets Inc., maker of the popular trading app. He revealed his purchase after Robinhood stock plunged nearly 80% from its initial public offering; the shares have edged slightly higher since then.

Mr. Bankman-Fried is the majority owner of both FTX and Alameda, an arrangement that has drawn criticism from crypto skeptics as well as some digital-currency traders. In traditional markets such as stocks and futures, exchanges are required to be neutral platforms that don’t benefit one trader over another. Regulators discourage them from being intertwined with trading firms, considering it a conflict of interest. No such restrictions exist in crypto.

Mr. Bankman-Fried said Alameda doesn’t get special privileges on FTX. While it was initially a major participant on FTX, helping to juice trading activity, it has since dropped to a small share of trading volumes, he said.

Last year Mr. Bankman-Fried resigned from his role as CEO of Alameda, saying he was spending most of his time on FTX. The firm continues to generate significant profits for him. One cryptocurrency wallet controlled by Alameda—where the firm holds some of its funds—has generated more than $550 million in trading profits since 2020, according to Nansen, a blockchain analytics firm.

FTX amassed a war chest of some $2 billion in a series of funding rounds in 2021 and early 2022, while crypto prices were still high. Investors in FTX included established asset managers such as Singapore state-owned investment company Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd. and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. The funding allowed FTX to make acquisitions after crypto crashed.

Mr. Bankman-Fried said that FTX has a few billion in cash that it could use for other deals—money it keeps in dollars, not crypto.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 23, 2022.



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Cocoa and Coffee Prices Have Surged. Climate Change Will Only Take Them Higher.

Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sat, Apr 13, 2024 5 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavorable weather conditions and diseases,” the organization said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.

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