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From $32 billion to criminal investigations: How Sam Bankman-Fried’s empire vanished overnight

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Samuel Bankman-Fried’s poster in downtown San Francisco.

MacKenzie Sigalos | CNBC

The Kimchi Swap put Sam Bankman-Fried on the map.

The year was 2017, and the ex-Jane Street Capital quant trader noticed something funny when he looked at the page on listing the price of bitcoin on exchanges around the world. Today, that price is pretty much uniform across the exchanges, but back then, Bankman-Fried previously told CNBC that he would sometimes see a 60% difference in the value of the coin. His immediate instinct, he says, was to get in on the arbitrage trade — buying bitcoin on one exchange, selling it back on another exchange, and then earning a profit equivalent to the price spread.

“That’s the lowest hanging fruit,” Bankman-Fried said in September.

The arbitrage opportunity was especially compelling in South Korea, where the exchange-listed price of bitcoin was significantly more than in other countries. It was dubbed the Kimchi Premium – a reference to the traditional Korean side dish of salted and fermented cabbage.

FTX's Sam Bankman Fried to NYT: I would have been more thorough if I had concentrated better

After a month of personally dabbling in the market, Bankman-Fried launched his own trading house, Alameda Research (named after his hometown of Alameda, California, near San Francisco), to scale the opportunity and work on it full-time. Bankman-Fried said in an interview in September that the firm sometimes made as much as a million dollars a day.

Part of why SBF, as he’s also called, earned street cred for carrying out a relatively straightforward trading strategy had to do with the fact that it wasn’t the easiest thing to execute on crypto rails five years ago. Bitcoin arbitrage involved setting up connections to each one of the trading platforms, as well as building out other complicated infrastructure to abstract away a lot of the operational aspects of making the trade. Bankman-Fried’s Alameda became very good at that and the money rolled in.

From there, the SBF empire ballooned.

Alameda’s success spurred the launch of crypto exchange FTX in the spring of 2019. FTX’s success begat a $2 billion venture fund that seeded other crypto firms. Bankman-Fried’s personal wealth grew to over $16 billion at its peak in March.

Bankman-Fried was suddenly the poster boy for crypto everywhere, and the FTX logo adorned everything from Formula 1 race cars to a Miami basketball arena. The 30-year-old went on an endless press tour, bragged about having a balance sheet that could one day buy Goldman Sachs, and became a fixture in Washington, where he was one of the Democratic party’s top donors, promising to sink $1 billion into U.S. political races (before later backtracking).

It was all a mirage.

As crypto prices tanked this year, Bankman-Fried bragged that he and his enterprise were immune. But in fact, the sector-wide wipeout hit his operation quite hard. Alameda borrowed money to invest in failing digital asset firms this spring and summer to keep the industry afloat, then reportedly siphoned off FTX customers’ deposits to stave off margin calls and meet immediate debt obligations. A Twitter fight with the CEO of rival exchange Binance pulled the mask off the scheme.

Alameda, FTX and a host of subsidiaries Bankman-Fried founded have filed for bankruptcy protection in Delaware. He’s stepped down from his leadership roles and lost 94% of his personal wealth in a single day. It is unclear exactly where he is now, as his $40 million Bahamas penthouse is reportedly up for sale. The photos of his face plastered across FTX advertisements throughout downtown San Francisco serve as an unwelcome reminder of his rotting empire.

It was a steep fall from hero to villain. But there were a lot of signs.

Bankman-Fried told CNBC in September that one of his fundamental principles when it comes to playing the markets is working with incomplete information.

“When you can sort of start to quantify and map out what’s going on, but you know there are a lot of things you don’t know,” he said. “You know you’re being approximate, but you have to try to figure out what trade to do anyway.”

The following account is based on reporting from CNBC, Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Piecing together bits and pieces from various news sources paints a picture of an investor who over-extended himself, frantically moved to cover his mistakes with questionable and perhaps illegal tactics, and surrounded himself with a tight cabal of advisors who could not or would not curb his worst impulses.

What went wrong in the last year

At some point in the last two years, according to reports, Alameda began borrowing money for various purposes, including to make venture investments.

Six months ago, a wave of titans in the crypto sector folded as depressed token prices sucked liquidity out of the market. First came the spectacular failure of a popular U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin project — the stablecoin known as terraUSD (or UST, for short) and its sister token luna — wiping out $60 billion. That collapse helped to bring down Three Arrows Capital, or 3AC, which was one of the industry’s most respected crypto hedge funds. Crypto brokers and lenders like Voyager Digital and Celsius had significant exposure to 3AC, so they fell right along with it in quick succession.

The risk of an FTX crypto contagion

The big problem was that everyone was borrowing from one another, which only works when the price of all those crypto coins keeps going up. By June, bitcoin and ether had both tumbled by more than half for the year.

“Leverage is the source of every implosion in financial institutions, both traditional and crypto,” said Hart Lambur, a former Goldman Sachs government bond trader who provided liquidity in U.S. Treasuries for central banks, money managers and hedge funds.

Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Long-Term Capital, Three Arrows Capital and now FTX all blew up due to bad leverage that got sniffed out and exploited by the market,” continued Lambur, who now works in decentralized finance.

As the dominoes fell, SBF jumped into the mix in June to try to bail out some of the failing crypto firms before it was too late, extending hundreds of millions of dollars in financing. In some cases, he made moves to try to buy these companies at fire-sale prices.

Amid the wave of bankruptcies, some of Alameda’s lenders asked for their money back. But Alameda didn’t have it, because it was no longer liquid. Bankman-Fried’s trading firm had parked the borrowed money in venture investments, a decision he told the Times was “probably not really worth it.”

To meet its debt obligations, FTX borrowed from customer deposits in FTX to quietly bail out Alameda, the Journal and the Times reported. The borrowing was in the billions. Bankman-Fried admitted the move in his interview with the Times, saying that Alameda had a large “margin position” on FTX, but he declined to disclose the exact amount.

“It was substantially larger than I had thought it was,” Bankman-Fried told the Times. “And in fact the downside risk was very significant.”

Reuters and the Journal both reported that the lifeline was around $10 billion, and Reuters reports that $1 billion to $2 billion of that emergency financing is now missing. Tapping customer funds without permission was a violation of FTX’s own terms and conditions. On Wall Street, it would be a clear violation of U.S. securities laws.

The two firms – one of the world’s biggest crypto brokers and one of the world’s biggest crypto buyers – were supposed to be separated by a firewall. But they were, in fact, quite cozy, at one point extending to a romantic relationship between Bankman-Fried and Alameda CEO Caroline Ellison, he acknowledged to the Times.

“FTX and Alameda had an extremely problematic relationship,” Castle Island Venture’s Nic Carter told CNBC. “Bankman-Fried operated both an exchange and a prop shop, which is super unorthodox and just not really allowed in actually regulated capital markets.”

The borrowing and lending scheme between the two firms was more convoluted than just using customer funds to make up for bad trading bets. FTX tried to paper over the hole by denoting assets in two crypto tokens that were essentially made up – FTT, a token created by FTX, and Serum, which was a token created and promoted by FTX and Alameda, according to financial filings reported by Bloomberg’s Matt Levine.

Firms make up crypto tokens all the time – indeed, it’s a big part of how the crypto boom of the last two years was financed – and they usually offer some sort of benefit to users, although their real value to most traders is simple speculation, that is, the hope that the price will rise. Owners of FTT were promised lower trading costs on FTX and the ability to earn interest and rewards like waived blockchain fees. While investors can profit when FTT and other coins increase in value, they’re largely unregulated and are particularly susceptible to market downturns.

These tokens were essentially proxies for what people believed Bankman-Fried’s exchange to be worth, since it controlled the vast majority of them. Investor confidence in FTX was reflected in the price of FTT.

The key point here is that FTX was reportedly siphoning off customer assets as collateral for loans, and then covering it with a token it made up and printed at will, drip-feeding only a fraction of its supply into the open market. The financial acrobatics between the two firms somewhat resembles the moves that sunk energy firm Enron almost two decades ago – in that case, Enron essentially hid losses by transferring underperforming assets to off-balance sheet subsidiaries, then created complicated financial instruments to obscure the moves.

As all this was happening, Bankman-Fried continued his press tour, lionized as one of the great young tech entrepreneurs of the age. It only began to unravel once Bankman-Fried got into a public spat with Binance, a rival exchange.

Binance, CEOs race to reassure customers funds are safe

What went wrong in the last two weeks

The relationship between Binance and Bankman-Fried goes back almost to the beginning of his time in the industry. In 2019, Binance announced a strategic investment in FTX and said that as part of the deal it had taken “a long-term position in the FTX Token (FTT) to help enable sustainable growth of the FTX ecosystem.”

Flash forward a couple years to the summer of 2022. Bankman-Fried was pressing regulators to look into Binance and criticizing the exchange in public. It’s unclear exactly why – it could have been based on legitimate suspicions. Or it may simply have been because Binance was a major competitor to FTX, both as an exchange and as a potential buyer of other distressed crypto companies.

Whatever the reason, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, known as CZ, soon saw his chance to strike.

On Nov. 2, CoinDesk reported a leaked balance sheet showing that a significant amount of Alameda’s assets were held in FTX’s illiquid FTT token. It raised questions both about the trading firm’s solvency, as well as FTX’s financials.

Zhao took to Twitter on Sunday, Nov. 6, saying that Binance had about $2.1 billion worth of FTT and BUSD, its own stablecoin.

Then he dropped the bomb:

“Due to recent revelations that have came to light, we have decided to liquidate any remaining FTT on our books,” he said.

Investors raced to pull money out of FTX. On Nov. 6, according to Bankman-Fried, the exchange had roughly $5 billion of withdrawals, “the largest by a huge margin.” On an average day, net inflows had been in the tens of millions of dollars.

The speed of the withdrawals underscores how the largely unregulated crypto market is often operating in an information vacuum, meaning that traders react fast when new facts come to light.

“Crypto players are reacting quicker to news and rumor, which in turn builds up a liquidity crisis much faster than one would have seen in traditional finance,” said Fabian Astic, head of decentralized finance and digital assets for Moody’s Investors Service. 

“The opacity of the market operations often leads to panic reactions that, in turn, spark a liquidity crunch. The developments with Celsius, Three Arrows, Voyager, and FTX show how easy it is for crypto investors to lose confidence, prompting them to withdraw large sums and causing a near-death crisis for these firms,” continued Astic.

As the FTT token plunged in value in tandem with the mass withdrawals, SBF quietly sought investors to cover the multibillion-dollar hole from the money that had been withdrawn by Alameda. That value may have been as high as $10 billion, according to multiple reports. They all declined, and in a move of desperation, SBF turned to CZ.

In a public tweet on Nov. 8, CZ said Binance agreed to buy the company, though the deal had a key term: non-binding. The sudden public revelation that FTX was in need of a bailout caused FTT’s value to plunge off a cliff.

The next day, CZ claimed he did due diligence and didn’t like what he saw, essentially sealing FTX’s demise. Bankman-Fried speculated to the Times that CZ never intended to buy it in the first place.

On Friday, Nov. 11, FTX and Alameda both filed for bankruptcy. FTX, which was valued at $32 billion in a financing round earlier this year, has frozen trading and customer assets and is seeking to discharge its creditors in bankruptcy court. Bankman-Fried is no longer the boss at either firm.

A new bankruptcy filing posted on Tuesday shows that FTX may have more than one million creditors. It plans to file a list of the 50 largest ones this week.

Lawyers for the exchange wrote that FTX has been in contact with “dozens” of regulators in the U.S. and overseas in the last 72 hours, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The SEC and Department of Justice are reportedly investigating FTX for civil and criminal violations of securities laws. Financial regulators in the Bahamas are also reportedly looking at the possibility of criminal misconduct.

CEO of FTX Sam Bankman-Fried testifies during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Alex Wong | Getty Images

Binance is now poised to claim absolute dominance over the industry.

“Binance clearly comes out stronger from all of this,” said William Quigley, co-founder of the U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin tether. “CZ claims Binance has no debt, and doesn’t use its BNB token as collateral. Both of those are good practices in the highly volatile crypto markets.”

Quigley added that more institutional trading and custody will likely shift to Binance.

“The cryptocurrency industry’s entire ethos is founded on disintermediation and decentralization, so Binance’s ever-growing dominance raises reasonable fears over how further centralization will affect the average trader,” said Clara Medalie, director of research at data firm Kaiko.

“FTX’s collapse benefits no one, not even Binance, which will now face growing questions over its monopoly of market activity,” Medalie told CNBC, speculating that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of market participants affected by the fall of FTX and Alameda.

“Each entity has numerous twisted and over-lapping financial ties to projects throughout the industry that now stand to lose support or go under themselves,” she said.

In the meantime, though, Binance took a bath on the collapse of the FTT token, which CZ says the firm held after Bankman-Fried asked for a bailout.

“Full disclosure,” CZ tweeted last Sunday.

“Binance never shorted FTT. We still have a bag of as we stopped selling FTT after SBF called me. Very expensive call.”

– CNBC’s Ari Levy, Kate Rooney and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.

Sam Bankman-Fried faces possible bankruptcy after failed FTX deal


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Two children and two adults survive after Tesla plunges 250 feet off California cliff

View from the helicopter during a rescue operation after a vehicle carrying two adults and two children went over a cliff in Devil’s Slide, San Mateo county, California, U.S., January 2, 2023, plunging hundreds of feet, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in this still image obtained from social media video.

CHP – Golden Gate Division | Reuters

Two adults and two children were rescued from a Tesla that plunged 250 feet off a cliff Monday morning in San Mateo County, California, officials said. 

The car was traveling southbound on the Pacific Coast Highway when it went over the cliff at Devil’s Slide, south of the Tom Lantos tunnel, and landed near the water’s edge below, the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit said. 

The car flipped and landed on its wheels in the fall, CAL FIRE/Coastside Fire Incident Commander Brian Pottenger said. Witnesses saw the accident and called 911. 

As crews were lowered down, they were able to see movement in the front seat, through their binoculars, meaning someone was alive.

“We were actually very shocked when we found survivable victims in the vehicle. So, that actually was a really hopeful moment for us,” Pottenger said. 

Fire officials called for helicopters to help hoist the survivors to safety. As they waited, firefighters rappelled to the scene and rescued the two children.

Rescue teams are seen at the scene as a Tesla with four occupants plunged over a cliff on Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Devils Slide on January 2, 2022 in San Mateo County, California, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The California Highway Patrol shared video on social media showing helicopters lower first responders to the scene to extricate and rescue two adults inside. 

All four were hospitalized. The San Mateo Sheriff’s Office said the two adults suffered non-life-threatening injuries and the two children were unharmed.

It’s not clear what caused the car to go over the cliff. CHP is handling the investigation. 

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Tesla shares tumble more than 10% following deliveries report

Tesla vehicles are shown at a sales and service center in Vista, California, June 3, 2022.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Shares of Tesla dropped 13% on Tuesday morning, a day after the electric auto maker reported fourth-quarter vehicle production and delivery numbers for 2022.

Deliveries are the closest approximation of sales disclosed by Tesla. The company reported 405,278 total deliveries for the quarter and 1.31 million total deliveries for the year. These numbers represented a record for the Elon Musk-led automaker and growth of 40% in deliveries year over year, but they fell shy of analysts’ expectations.

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According to a consensus of analysts’ estimates compiled by FactSet, as of Dec. 31, 2022, Wall Street was expecting Tesla to report around 427,000 deliveries for the final quarter of the year. Estimates updated in December, and included in the FactSet consensus, ranged from 409,000 to 433,000.

Those more recent estimates were in line with a company-compiled consensus distributed by Tesla investor relations Vice President Martin Viecha. 

Some Wall Street analysts think Tesla’s deliveries miss spells trouble for the electric vehicle maker, but others see a buying opportunity for the company in 2023.

Baird analyst Ben Kallo, who recently named Tesla a top pick for 2023, maintained an outperform rating and said he would remain a buyer of the stock ahead of the company’s earnings report, which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

“Q4 deliveries missed consensus but beat our estimates,” he said in a Tuesday note. “Importantly, production increased ~20% q/q which we expect to continue into 2023 as gigafactories in Berlin and Austin continue to ramp.”

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they consider the delivery report to be an “incremental negative,” and view Tesla as a company that is “well positioned for long-term growth.” Goldman reiterated its buy rating on the stock in a Monday note and said that making vehicles more affordable in a challenging macroeconomic environment will be a “key driver of growth.”

“We believe key debates from here will be on whether vehicle deliveries can reaccelerate, margins and Tesla’s brand,” the analysts said.

Shares of Tesla suffered an extreme yearlong sell-off in 2022, prompting CEO Musk to tell employees in late December not to be “too bothered by stock market craziness.”

Musk has blamed Tesla’s declining share price in part on rising interest rates. But critics point to his rocky $44 billion Twitter takeover as a bigger culprit for the slide.

Morgan Stanley analysts said they think the company’s share price weakness is a “window of opportunity to buy.”

“Between a worsening macro backdrop, record high unaffordability, and increasing competition, there are hurdles for all auto companies to overcome in the year ahead,” they said in a note Tuesday. “However, within this backdrop we believe TSLA has the potential to widen its lead in the EV race, as it leverages its cost and scale advantages to further itself from the competition.”

CNBC’s Lora Kolodny and Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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Tesla makes China boss Tom Zhu its highest-profile executive after Elon Musk

Tom Zhu Xiaotong, Tesla’s current executive in charge of China, speaks as a new Tesla experience store opens on Aug. 18, 2015 in Hangzhou, China.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

Tesla’s China chief Tom Zhu has been promoted to take direct oversight of the electric carmaker’s U.S. assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe, according to an internal posting of reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

The Tesla posting showed that Zhu’s title of vice president for Greater China had not changed and that he also retained his responsibilities as Tesla’s most senior executive for sales in the rest of Asia as of Tuesday.

The move makes Zhu the highest-profile executive at Tesla after Chief Executive Elon Musk, with direct oversight for deliveries in all of its major markets and operations of its key production hubs.

The reporting lines for Zhu would keep Tesla’s vehicle design and development — both areas where Musk has been heavily involved — separate while creating an apparent deputy to Musk on the more near-term challenges of managing global sales and output.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Reuters reviewed the organizational chart that had been posted internally by Tesla and confirmed the change with two people who had seen it. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

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Zhu and a team of his reports were brought in by Tesla late last year to troubleshoot production issues in the United States, driving an expectation among his colleagues then that he was being groomed for a bigger role.

Zhu’s appointment to a global role comes at a time when Musk has been distracted by his acquisition of Twitter and Tesla analysts and investors have urged action that would deepen the senior executive bench and allow him to focus on Tesla.

Under Zhu, Tesla’s Shanghai plant rebounded strongly from Covid lockdowns in China.

Tesla said on Monday that it had delivered 405,278 vehicles in the fourth quarter, short of Wall Street estimates, according to data compiled by Refinitiv.

The company had delivered 308,600 vehicles in the same period a year earlier.

The Tesla managers reporting to Zhu include: Jason Shawhan, director of manufacturing at the Gigafactory in Texas; Hrushikesh Sagar, senior director of manufacturing at Tesla’s Fremont factory; Joe Ward, vice president in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Troy Jones, vice president of North America sales and service, according to the Tesla notice on reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

Tesla country managers in China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand continued to report to Zhu, the notice showed.

Zhu does not have a direct report at Tesla’s still-ramping Berlin plant, but a person with knowledge of the matter said responsibility for that operation would come with the reporting line for Amsterdam-based Ward. Ward could not be immediately reached for comment.

Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, joined Tesla in 2014. Before that he was a project manager at a company established by his MBA classmates at Duke University, advising Chinese contractors working on infrastructure projects in Africa.

During Shanghai’s two-month Covid lockdown, Zhu was among the first batch of employees sleeping in the factory as they sought to keep it running, people who work with him have said.

Zhu, a no-fuss manager who sports a buzz cut, favors Tesla-branded fleece jackets and has lived in a government-subsidized apartment that is a 10-minute drive from the Shanghai Gigafactory. It was not immediately clear whether he would move after his promotion.

He takes charge of Tesla’s main production hubs at a time when the company is readying the launch of Cybertruck and a revamped version of its Model 3 sedan. Tesla has also said it is developing a cheaper electric vehicle but has not provided details on that plan.

When Tesla posted a picture on Twitter last month to celebrate its Austin, Texas, plant hitting a production milestone for its Model Y, Zhu was among hundreds of workers smiling on the factory floor.

Why China is beating the U.S. in electric vehicles

Allan Wang, who was promoted to vice president in charge of sales in China in July, was listed as the legal representative for the operation in registration papers filed with Chinese regulators in a change by the company last month.

Tesla board member James Murdoch said in November the company had recently identified a potential successor to Musk without naming the person. Murdoch did not respond to a request for comment.

Electrek previously reported that Zhu would take responsibility for U.S. sales, delivery and service.

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