The fate of crypto wunderkind-turned-pariah Sam Bankman-Fried may depend on two important questions: What did he know about Alameda Research, and when did he know it? Customers, investors, and maybe law enforcement are closing in on him.
FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange Bankman-Fried cofounded in 2019 and grew into one of the largest, and Alameda, a covert crypto hedge fund he cofounded in 2017, both unexpectedly collapsed in early November. Since then, rumors have abounded about how the two operations were connected and what series of circumstances led both businesses into bankruptcy.
This week, Bankman-Fried began presenting his own working theory in a number of high-profile media interviews. According to his theory, Alameda used excessive leverage to make unsafe bets on the FTX platform, and FTX failed to identify and stop it. One crucial assertion was that Bankman-Fried himself was unaware of what Alameda was planning. SBF stated on Wednesday at the DealBook Summit hosted by The New York Times:
“I was frankly surprised by how big Alameda’s position was. Alameda is not, like, a company that I monitor day-to-day. It’s not a company I run. It’s not a company I have run for the last couple years. And Alameda’s finances I was not deeply aware of. I was only surface-level aware of Alameda’s finances.”
The extent of the "surface-level" still needs to be determined while the bankruptcy team searches through the debris to determine what happened. However, a look at Bankman-Fried's conversations with Forbes offers an early indication of his awareness of Alameda's activities: Since January 2021, Bankman-Fried has emailed Forbes at least five times with information about some of Alameda's key holdings in response to inquiries about his net worth, including details of specific transactions and an update on the company's holdings of FTT, Solana, and Serum tokens as recently as late August.
The majority of billionaires worldwide choose to keep their money private. Not Bankman-Fried, who Forbes contacted in January 2021 for the first time regarding the matter. He replied in an email, "[H]appy to give an outline." Later that week, he sent a number of documents outlining his ownership stakes in FTX (roughly half) and Alameda (about 90%), screenshots of cryptocurrency wallets, and a Google Sheet that listed each asset he owned, including information about his FTX equity as well as his holdings of 67.8 million Solana tokens, 193.2 million FTT tokens, and 3 billion Serum tokens.
Bankman-Fried revised the spreadsheet two months later, when Forbes was revising the estimates for our yearly World's Billionaires list. In addition to the rising value of cryptocurrencies, Alameda had increased its allocation of FTT tokens to 195.8 million. One line is, "Alameda funds under management, approximately." It is $32,534,779,809. Alameda's total assets are estimated to be a more manageable $14.7 billion in a second column that only includes tokens that were unlocked, or able to be used for transactions.
These updates came seldom, essentially whenever Forbes requested them. Bankman-Fried expanded the Google Sheet by adding a new tab in September 2021. The total amount of money managed by Alameda has increased to $37.6 billion, $16.8 billion of which only included unlocked tokens. He explained that the company had done some Solana trades and that the amount of FTT tokens on his balance sheet had also changed. Bankman-Fried was knowledgeable with the specifics:
“[W]e used ~20mm FTT tokens as part of the funds to purchase back FTX equity from Binance (causing the decrease), and then subsequently repurchased that FTT in the market. So, as of now (a bit different from a few weeks ago!), we're back up to 186,442,198 unlocked FTT (after having sold off a bit on the recent rally).”
Bankman-Fried added new information to the spreadsheet in March 2022 regarding his portion of the assets that Alameda possessed. Solana had 53 million tokens left, while FTT's holdings had fallen to 176 million. A month or so before Bankman-empire Fried's started to fall apart, he gave Forbes another rundown of his net worth in late August and included a capitalization table of the largest owners in FTX and FTX U.S. The Alameda holdings were also visible on a new tab in the Google Sheet, with the company's stakes in Solana, Serum, and FTT remaining at 53 million, 3 billion, and 176 million, respectively. According to Bankman-Fried at the time, the value of his portion of Alameda's funds under management was $8.6 billion, or $6.4 billion if unlocked tokens are excluded. By that point, there was a lot more going on beneath the surface, and Alameda was probably in serious trouble due to trading losses on bets with high leverage.
Despite stepping back from managing the hedge fund after cofounding FTX in 2019, the amount of information Bankman-Fried provided to Forbes over the years demonstrates that he had detailed knowledge of some of Alameda's holdings and at least some knowledge of the transactions it was making, particularly in 2021. Despite the fact that he is a shareholder in both companies, Bankman-Fried has long maintained that they run separately from one another.
His interactions with Forbes don't necessarily indicate that he was informed of all of the hedge fund's operations, and the snapshots he sent were obviously incomplete, listing only the largest holdings. He also only provided details on a small number of significant transactions, such as token purchases in 2021. According to Bankman-Fried, Alameda experienced difficulties recently. For this story, he declined to comment.
The value that outside investors like Sequoia Capital and Singapore government fund Temasek attributed to FTX and its U.S. operations formed a large part of Forbes' estimate of Bankman-Fried's net worth, which peaked at $26.5 billion in late 2021 but now appears to be close to zero. To Bankman-Fried self-reported Alameda holdings, we imposed substantial deductions. Forbes pressed Bankman-Fried for additional information on his assets and liabilities in August. They also demanded a breakdown of Alameda's balance sheet, including a list of its investments and any debts it may have owed.
He suggested in an email that he may have looked into Alameda's books at least as recently as late August, more than a month before he claimed this week that he learned about the company's activities:
“[W]orking on it! [W]ill see what I can get. A bunch is spread between a ton of wallets…”
He never sent any further information.