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.
Sam Bankman-Fried, owner of an expanding crypto empire, is trying to bail out the industry after a sharp downturn.
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.
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.
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.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
U.S. employees are more dissatisfied than they were in the thick of the pandemic
Americans, by many measures, are unhappier at work than they have been in years.
Despite wage increases, more paid time off and greater control over where they work, the number of U.S. workers who say they are angry, stressed and disengaged is climbing, according to Gallup’s 2023 workplace report. Meanwhile, a BambooHR analysis of data from more than 57,000 workers shows job-satisfaction scores have fallen to their lowest point since early 2020, after a 10% drop this year alone.
In interviews with workers around the country, it is clear the unhappiness is part of a rethinking of work life that began in 2020. The sources of workers’ discontent range from inflation, which is erasing much of recent pay gains, to the still-unsettled nature of the workday. People chafe against being micromanaged back to offices, yet they also find isolating aspects of hybrid and remote work. A cooling job market—especially in white-collar roles—is leaving many professionals feeling stuck.
Companies have largely moved on from pandemic operating mode, cutting costs and renewing a focus on productivity. The disconnect with workers has managers frustrated, and no quick fix seems to be at hand. Those in charge said they have given staff more money, flexibility and support, only to come up short.
The experiences of workers like Lindsey Leesmann suggest how expectations have shifted from just a few years ago. Leesmann, 38 years old, said she soured on a philanthropy job after having to return to the office two days a week earlier this year.
Prepandemic, she would have been happy working three days a week at home. “It would have been a dream come true.” Still, her team’s in-office requirements seemed like going backward, and made her feel that her professionalism and work quality were in doubt. Instead of collaborating more, she and others rarely left their desks, except for meetings or lunch, she said. Negative feelings followed her home on her hourlong commute, leaving her short-tempered with her kids.
“You try to keep work and home separate, but that sort of stuff is just impacting your mental health so much,” said Leesmann, who recently moved to a new job that requires five in-office days a month.
The discontent has business leaders struggling for answers, said Stephan Scholl, chief executive of Alight Solutions, a technology company focused on benefits and payroll administration. Many of the Fortune 100 companies on Alight’s client list boosted spending on employee benefits such as mental health, child care and well-being bonuses by 20% over the pandemic years.
“All that extra spend has not translated into happier employees,” Scholl said. In an Alight survey of 2,000 U.S. employees this year, 34% said they often dread starting their workday—an 11-percentage-point rise since 2020. Corporate clients have told him mental-health claims and costs from employee turnover are rising.
One factor is the share of workers who are relatively new to their roles after record levels of job-switching, said Benjamin Granger, chief workplace psychologist at software company Qualtrics. Many employers have focused more on hiring than situating new employees well, leaving many newbies feeling adrift. In other cases, workers discovered shiny-seeming new jobs weren’t a great fit.
The upshot is that the newest workers are among the least satisfied, Qualtrics data show—a reversal of the higher levels of enthusiasm that fresh hires typically voice. In its study of nearly 37,000 workers published last month, people less than six months into a job reported lower levels of engagement, feelings of inclusion and intent to stay than longer-tenured workers. They also scored lower on those metrics than new workers in 2022, suggesting the pay raises that lured many people to new jobs might not be as satisfying as they were a year or two ago.
“What happened to that honeymoon phase?” Granger said.
John Shurr, a 66-year-old former manufacturing engineer, took a job as an inventory manager at a heavy-equipment retailer in the spring in Missoula, Mont., after being laid off during the pandemic.
“It was a nice job title on a pretty rotten job,” said Shurr, who learned soon after starting that his duties would also include sales to walk-in customers.
When Shurr broached the subject, his boss asked him to give it a chance and said he was really needed on the showroom floor. Shurr, who describes himself as more of a computer guy, quit about a month later.
“I feel kind of trapped at the moment,” said Shurr, who has since taken a part-time job as a parts manager as he tries to find full-time work.
Long-distance relationships between bosses and staff might also be an issue. Nearly a third of workers at large firms don’t work in the same metro area as their managers, up from about 23% in February 2020, according to data from payroll provider ADP.
Distance has weakened ties among co-workers and heightened conflict, said Moshe Cohen, a mediator and negotiation coach who teaches conflict resolution at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He has noticed more employees calling co-workers or bosses toxic or impossible, signs that trust is thin.
Cohen’s corporate clients said their employees are increasingly transactional with one another. Some are coaching workers in the finer points of dialogue, such as saying hello first before jumping into the substance of a conversation.
“The idea of slowing down, taking the time, being genuine, trying to actually establish some sort of connection with the other person—that’s really missing,” Cohen said.
One Los Angeles-based consultant in his 20s, who asked to remain anonymous because he is seeking another job, said that when he started his job at a large company last year, his largely remote colleagues were focused on their own work, unwilling to show a new hire the ropes or invite him for coffee. Many leave cameras off for video calls and few people show up at the office, making it hard to build relationships.
“There’s zero humanity,” he said, noting that he is seeking another job with a strong office culture.
The share of U.S. companies mandating office attendance five days a week has fallen this year—to 38% in October from 49% at the start of the year—according to Scoop Technologies, a software firm that developed an index to monitor workplace policies of nearly 4,500 companies.
Some companies have reversed flexible remote-work policies—in large part, they said, to boost employee engagement and productivity—only to face worker backlash.
Not all the data point downward. A Conference Board survey in November 2022 of U.S. adults showed workers were more satisfied with their jobs than they had been in years. Key contingents among the happiest employees: people who voluntarily switched roles during the pandemic and those working a mix of in-person and remote days. But that poll was taken before a spate of layoffs at high-profile companies and big declines in the number of knowledge-worker and professional jobs advertised.
At Farmers Group, workers posted thousands of mostly negative comments on the insurer’s internal social-media platform after its new CEO nixed the company’s previous policy allowing most workers to be remote.
Employees like Kandy Mimande said they felt betrayed. “We couldn’t get the ‘why,’” said the 43-year-old, who had sold her car and spent thousands of dollars to redo her home office under the remote-work policy. She shelled out $10,000 for a used car for the commute. A company spokesperson said that not all employees will support every business decision and that Farmers hasn’t seen a significant impact on staff retention.
During a brief leave, Mimande realised she no longer felt a sense of purpose from her product-management job. She resigned last month after she and her wife decided they could live on one salary.
She now helps promote a band and pet-sits. “It’s so much easier for me to report to myself,” she said.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’