I haven’t discussed cryptocurrency on this blog before, because, while it’s an important topic, it’s something that I couldn’t wholeheartedly endorse. My caution against promoting crypto as an investment vehicle wasn’t misguided: I’d seen enough money scandals to know that banging the drum for anything financial is always done carefully.
Then FTX and Alameda Research collapsed. And at that point, I knew that more discussions around the risks of crypto were worth having.
If you’re unfamiliar with FTX and Alameda and the founder/CEO of both companies, Sam Bankman-Fried, don’t worry. I’ll give you the abbreviated version of what’s happening. FTX was a billion-dollar cryptocurrency trading company that went bankrupt in November 2022. Alameda Research has been accused of market manipulation, profiting from the GameStop stock trading frenzy, and contributing to the volatility and lack of regulation in the cryptocurrency market. Bankman-Fried is charged with eight counts of fraud and will go to trial in October 2023.
The investigations into Alameda started in early 2021, when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) probed into whether the company was involved in manipulative trading practices on the derivatives market. Specifically, the CFTC is investigating whether the firm used wash trading, a form of market manipulation where an individual or group trades with themselves to create the illusion of market activity, to artificially inflate the value of certain cryptocurrencies.
FTX’s affairs are so bad that the company’s current CEO, John J. Ray III, commented what he observed as regards the state of internal accountability. He stated that he, “had never seen ‘such an utter failure of corporate controls at every level of an organization.’ ” This is coming from a man that was the CEO of Enron after it collapsed in the early 2000s.
Currently, $700 million in assets have been seized from Bankman-Fried, and I anticipate there will be more revelations in the months to come. That being said, I think it’s time to finally talk about crypto and Sam (though, this could be applied broadly to many other founders and CEOs within the crypto world).
The cryptocurrency market is still a relatively new and developing industry, and there is a lack of oversight and protection for investors. Lack of oversight and protection means that there is no recourse when things take unexpected turns: if there is an unlawful loss, there is no one coming to help you. Unless you truly have money to “lose” (and some people do!), crypto is not a sound investment. Between the high volatility, lack of regulation, uncertain long-term value, and lack of real-world utility it is, at best, a high-risk investment. If you’re interested in investing, you may want to consider alternative investments that have a lower risk and greater potential for returns. It’s always important to do your own research and invest only what you can afford to lose. This market is vulnerable to manipulation and fraud, making it far too unsafe for primary investment purposes.
Now, on to Sam: Bankman-Fried is a lesson in the cult of personality. While he is undoubtedly intelligent and capable of growing a billion (!) dollar business, he benefited heavily from cultivating an image of easygoing tech genius. Vox described it this way:
” The media portrayed him as an unassuming, nerdy savant, frequently noting his down-to-earthness, his messy mop of hair, his penchant for wearing T-shirts and shorts, his Toyota Corolla. Investors were enamored of the fact that he wasn’t a buttoned-up entrepreneur; he played computer games during pitch meetings, and like other modern-day founders, his eccentricities were taken as proof of his distinct genius.”
Part of his appeal was that he didn’t appear arrogant, stuffy, or flashy: he was ordinary but had certain quirks that read as “genius”. It’s important to remember that the cult of personality isn’t limited to “shiny” personalities: anyone that charms on a public platform can fall into this broad group. In the end, the unassuming nature was part of a public image that hid poor internal processes and (alleged) fraudulent behavior. It’s a cautionary tale on not believing what we see or hear, and to do our own research and listen to our guts.
I’ve been fascinated with the FTX, Alameda, and Sam Bankman-Fried drama, and I’ve found this case to be full of lessons for everyone. Have you all been following this case? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.