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Sam Bankman-Fried’s Alameda quietly used FTX customer funds for trading, say sources

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Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

The quant trading firm Sam Bankman-Fried founded was able to quietly use customer funds from his exchange FTX in a way that flew under the radar of investors, employees and auditors in the process, according to a source.

The way they did it was by using billions from FTX users without their knowledge, says the source.

Alameda Research, the fund started by Bankman-Fried, borrowed billions in customer funds from its founder’s exchange, FTX, according to a source familiar with company operations, who asked not to be named because the details were confidential.

The crypto exchange drastically underestimated the amount FTX needed to keep on hand if someone wanted to cash out, according to the source. Trading platforms are required by their regulators to hold enough money to match what customers deposit. They need the same cushion, if not more, in the event that a user borrows money to make a trade. According to the source, FTX did not have nearly enough on hand.

Its biggest customer, according to a source, was the hedge fund Alameda. The fund was partially able to cover up this activity because the assets it was trading never touched its own balance sheet. Instead of holding any money, it was borrowing billions from FTX users, then trading it, the source said.

None of this was disclosed to customers, to CNBC’s knowledge. In general, mixing customer funds with counterparties and trading them without explicit consent, according to U.S. securities law, is illegal. It also violates FTX’s terms of service. Sam Bankman-Fried declined to comment on allegations of misappropriating customer funds, but did say its recent bankruptcy filing was a result of issues with a leveraged trading position.

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“A margin position took a huge hit,” Bankman-Fried told CNBC.

In making some of these leveraged trades, the quant fund was using a cryptocurrency created by the exchange called FTT as collateral. In a lending agreement, collateral is typically the borrower’s pledge to secure repayment. It’s often dollars, or something else of value — like real estate. In this case, a source said Alameda was borrowing from FTX, and using the exchange’s in-house cryptocurrency, FTT token, to back those loans. The price of the FTT token nosedived 75% in a day, making the collateral insufficient to cover the trade.

In the past week, FTX has crashed from a $32 billion cryptocurrency powerhouse, into bankruptcy. The blurred lines between FTX and Alameda Research resulted in a massive liquidity crisis for both companies. Bankman-Fried stepped down as CEO of FTX and said Alameda Research is shutting down. The company has since said it’s removing trading and withdrawals, and moving digital assets offline after a suspected $477 million hack.

When asked about the blurred lines between his companies in August, Bankman-Fried denied any conflict of interest and said FTX was a “neutral piece of market infrastructure.”

“I put a lot of work over the last few years into trying to eliminate conflicts of interest there,” 30-year-old Bankman-Fried told CNBC in an interview. “I don’t run Alameda anymore. I don’t work for it, none of FTX does. We have separate staffs — we don’t want to have preferential treatment. We want as best as we can, to treat everyone fairly.”

Margin trading

Part of the issue, according to the same source, was FTX’s web of complicated leverage and margin trading. Its “spot margin” trading feature let users borrow from other customers on the platform. For example, if a customer deposited one bitcoin they could lend it to another user and earn yield on it.

But every time an asset was borrowed, FTX subtracted the borrowed assets from what it needed to keep in its wallets to match customer deposits, a source says. In a typical situation, an exchange’s wallets need to match what customers deposit. But because of this practice, assets were not backed one-to-one and the company was underestimating the amount they owed customers.

The trading firm Alameda was also able to take advantage of this spot margin feature. A source says Alameda was able to borrow customer funds, essentially for free.

The source explained that Alameda could post the FTT tokens it held as collateral and borrow customer funds. Even if FTX created more FTT tokens, it would not drive down the coin’s value because these coins never made it onto the open market. As a result, these tokens held their market value, allowing Alameda to borrow against them – essentially receiving free money to trade with.

FTX had been able to sustain this pattern as long as it maintained the price of FTT and there was not a flood of customer withdrawals on the exchange. In the week leading up to the bankruptcy filing, FTX did not have enough assets to match customer withdrawals, the source said.

Outside auditors likely missed this discrepancy because customer assets are an off balance sheet item, and therefore, would not be reported on FTX’s financial statements, the source said.

That all crumbled last week.

CoinDesk reported that the majority of Alameda’s balance sheet consisted of FTT tokens, shaking the confidence of consumers and investors. Changpeng Zhao (CZ), the CEO of one of its largest rivals, Binance, publicly threatened to sell his FTT tokens on the open market, crashing the price of FTT.

This chain of events sparked a run on the exchange, with customers withdrawing roughly $5 billion before FTX paused withdrawals. When customers went to pull their money out, FTX didn’t have the funds, sources say.

‘No one saw this coming’

Former employees also told CNBC that the financial information they had access to about the company was inaccurate as a result of these accounting methods. CNBC reviewed a screenshot of FTX’s financial data that a source said was taken last week. Although the company was insolvent at the time, a former employee says the data incorrectly suggested that even if all customers were to withdraw their funds, FTX would still have more than a billion dollars left over.  

Three sources familiar with the company told CNBC that they were blindsided by the company’s actions and that, to their knowledge, only a small cohort knew that customer deposits were being misused. Employees said in some cases, their life savings are tied up on FTX.

“We’re just shocked and devastated,” a current FTX employee said. “I feel like I’m in a movie that’s playing out in real time. No one saw this coming.”

As a result of the public backlash FTX has faced over these missing funds, employees who say they were just as devastated as customers are now facing financial hardship, harassment surrounding their involvement with the company, and tarnished future employment prospects. 

“We could not believe how we were being betrayed,” a former employee said.


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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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Some analysts see a buying opportunity in Tesla for 2023 despite persistent demand pressures


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.

Elon Musk needs to go back to Tesla and have others run Twitter, says Jim Cramer

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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