Ironically, the remarkable fall of crypto wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried was foreseen at the apex of his FTX empire earlier this year in its own Super Bowl ad by none other than comedian Larry David.
The multibillion-dollar Bahamas-based exchange, until earlier this month among the biggest exchanges in the world, positioned itself as a safe and easy way to get into crypto. In the ad, David plays the foil who is skeptical of every great technological advance through history and naturally rejects crypto too. In the end the message is "Don't be like Larry.. don't miss out on crypto, NFTs, the next big thing."
For once, David's dislikable schmuck character gets the last laugh just nine months later -- although David himself is being sued over the ad. Over the past two weeks, a series of revelations and Machiavellian chess moves by Binance, FTX's biggest competitor, led to the collapse of FTX, the dethroning of Bankman-Fried as a leader in not only the crypto world, but also the philanthropic niche known as effective altruism.
As this seismic story continues to reverberate around the world, other exchanges and crypto protocols find themselves on the verge of toppling amid aftershocks rippling through their financial foundations. Every day it seems ongoing investigations are leading to more stunning and salacious scoops, lawsuits are being filed and congressional hearings are on the horizon. Here's a look at the characters and events behind a drama that will certainly continue to unfold for some time.
The main players:
Sam Bankman-Fried (often referred to as SBF): The son of two Stanford law professors, Bankman-Fried founded the trading firm Alameda Research in 2017, just a few years after graduating from MIT. In 2019, he founded FTX, which rode a bull market for crypto to an $18 billion valuation in July 2021, securing investments from the likes of Softbank and Sequoia Capital. Before shifting to work on crypto full time, SBF spent time working at the philanthropical Center for Effective Altruism.
He became a leading voice of the EA movement and publicly pledged to give away a majority of his wealth. He has also had an outsized presence on Capitol Hill as the second largest donor to Democratic politicians in recent years, testifying before Congress about crypto and even putting forth his own suggested draft of potential regulations for the industry just last month.
FTX: Short for "Futures Exchange," FTX was launched off the reputation that Alameda Research had built in the industry as one of the biggest crypto traders by volume. Its stated focus was derivatives, leveraged trading and a professional approach with a goal to "move the derivatives space toward becoming institutional grade." A notable early investor was Binance founder and CEO Changpeng Zhao (often known as "CZ" -- see below). FTX operates an international exchange out of the Bahamas. A separate entity, FTX.us, was set up in 2020 to legally service US customers. By 2021, FTX became the second largest crypto exchange behind only Binance, worth some $30 billion before it all started to unravel.
Alameda Research: The trading firm was started in 2017 by SBF and Tara Mac Aulay, who was running the Center for Effective Altruism at the time. The firm saw early success arbitraging the price of bitcoin between different markets. As it grew, it ventured into other sorts of trades and made dozens of investments into crypto projects. That includes a sizable influence in the Solana, a blockchain created by an ex-Qualcomm engineer to compete with Ethereum. The relationship between Alameda and FTX had been a popular subject of speculation before beginning to leak earlier this month.
Caroline Ellison: The CEO of Alameda Research as of its collapse met SBF when both worked for trading firm Jane Street. Ellison joined Alameda in 2018 and became its sole CEO in August 2022. She is the daughter of two academics, like Bankman-Fried, and is said to have been in an off-and-on relationship with SBF.
Binance / CZ: Founded by Changpeng Zhao (CZ), Binance is the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange by a significant amount following the collapse of FTX. CZ was an early investor in FTX, but the relationship reportedly soon soured, and his stake in the company was sold back in 2021. CZ's familiarity with FTX and SBF played a pivotal role in triggering the current debacle.
Bankman-Fried, Ellison and representatives from Binance, FTX, FTX.us and Alameda didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. The communications firm that represented FTX, FTX.us and Alameda prior to this month responded that it's no longer engaged with the companies. Other contacts for FTX and FTX.us didn't immediately respond.
May to July 2022: A series of crypto collapses, led by, trigger a wave of bankruptcies among crypto lenders like Celsius, BlockFi and Voyager. FTX moves to bail out BlockFi with the option to buy the New Jersey-based company and to acquire the assets of Voyager. The investments appear to cement FTX as one of the strongest players in a tumultuous crypto universe.
Nov. 2, 2022: Leaked financials from Alameda Research show that the suspected cozy relationship between the trading firm and FTX is even closer than many thought, with a large amount of the trading firm's assets held in the FTX native token FTT. Essentially, billions of Alameda's value can be traced to a cryptocurrency that sister company FTX creates. Each FTT token was worth around $25.50 at the time.
Nov. 6: CZ announces Binance will sell off its substantial holdings of FTT. Fifteen minutes later, Ellison responds that Alameda would like to buy the tokens from Binance at $22 each. The price of the token begins to fluctuate almost immediately, dropping up to 10% and dipping below $22 for periods the same day.
This was the beginning of the end for FTX.
Nov. 8: The price of FTT craters to less than $6, and CZ reveals that Binance has entered into a non-binding agreement to purchase FTX completely. Crucially, the buyout pends on a due diligence check of FTX's financials.
Nov. 9: Bloomberg reports federal agencies in the US are investigating FTX. A Binance spokesperson tells reporters: "As a result of corporate due diligence, as well as the latest news reports regarding mishandled customer funds and alleged US agency investigations, we have decided that we will not pursue the potential acquisition of FTX.com."
Nov. 10: SBF announces that Alameda Research will shut down. Regulators in the Bahamas freeze FTX assets. The entire staff of the Effective Altruism-inspired FTX Future Fund, which had committed $160 million in funds to various projects, resigns.
Nov. 11: FTX, FTX.us, Alameda and dozens of subsidiaries file for bankruptcy in the US. SBF resigns as CEO and is replaced by John J. Ray III, who famously oversaw the liquidation of Enron. Late in the day, FTX is hacked and over $300 million is moved off the exchange. FTX advises users to delete its mobile app. SBF later blames an "ex-employee, or malware on an ex-employee's computer" for the theft.
Nov. 13: Reuters reports that at least $1 billion in FTX customer funds can't be accounted for.
Nov. 15: A class action lawsuit is filed in Florida against FTX and a number of celebrity "brand ambassadors," including Larry David, Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, Kevin O'Leary, Naomi Osaka, Shaquille O'Neal and Stephen Curry, alleging deception of consumers.
Nov. 16: The US House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees announce they will hold hearings into the implosion of FTX in December. SBF tells Vox via Twitter DMs he regrets filing for bankruptcy and still hopes to raise $8 billion to make all FTX customers whole.
Nov. 17: In a bankruptcy court filing, new FTX CEO Ray says: "Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here. From compromised systems integrity and faulty regulatory oversight abroad, to the concentration of control in the hands of a very small group of inexperienced, unsophisticated and potentially compromised individuals, this situation is unprecedented."
Nov. 21: A deepfake video emerges on Twitter under a fake SBF account with a blue check mark that appears to show Bankman-Fried telling affected FTX users to go to a website to collect compensation through a crypto giveaway. The scheme is a textbook crypto scam, but with a convincing fake video as bait.
Nov. 22: Specifics of the finances behind SBF's empire begin to emerge as bankruptcy proceedings move forward. FTX representatives said they have located $1.4 billion worth of assets, but caution it may take several more weeks to establish a complete balance sheet. Meanwhile the company discloses its top 50 creditors are owed a total of $3.1 billion but doesn't disclose names of those creditors. Tax filings also reveal that FTX and Alameda Research collectively lost $3.7 billion between 2019 and 2021, long before the current debacle, suggesting things were never going as well in the SBF empire as it may have appeared.