How FTX recruited pedigree talent but ran sketchy operations

Sam Bankman-Fried’s inner circle was hired from Wall Street and Silicon Valley but key parts of his crypto exchange lacked risk controls and bookkeeping

In FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, authorities saw someone who could help bridge crypto and Wall Street. Bloomberg
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Before a cadre of Jane Street Group alumni spectacularly scorched the cryptocurrency landscape from their perch at FTX this month, the Wall Street company was enjoying its status as the behemoth almost nobody knew about.

The powerhouse in lower Manhattan with more than 2,000 employees is known among peers for its obsession with risk and preference for stealth. It digs into the health of trading partners, models potential catastrophes, autopsies losses and restricts staff from commenting publicly, because even that poses a danger.

The easiest way to describe the culture that Sam Bankman-Fried created at FTX: the opposite.

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As the story unspools of the epic collapse of FTX, the $32 billion crypto exchange now in bankruptcy, one of the biggest revelations is that founder and former leader Mr Bankman-Fried recruited an inner circle from some of the most serious employers around Wall Street and Silicon Valley and built such a haphazard operation.

Fellow Jane Street defectors included his one-time romantic partner Caroline Ellison, who ran the Alameda Research investment arm, and Brett Harrison, who oversaw FTX US.

Sam Trabucco, who co-led Alameda for a time with Ms Ellison before announcing his departure in August, was a trader at Susquehanna International Group.

Technology head Gary Wang and engineering chief Nishad Singh, also co-founders of FTX, came from Google and Facebook, respectively.

FTX’s chief operating officer, Constance Wang, previously worked at Credit Suisse Group.

Jane Street should have been an ideal training ground. On Wall Street, the proprietary trading shop is considered a premier employer of quants and techies, priding itself on catching big, complex risks that the rest of the market misses. It’s been trading crypto for half a decade.

Despite such pedigrees, a growing pile of evidence — now laid out in bankruptcy court — shows key parts of FTX lacked adequate risk controls and book-keeping.

Secret financial ties and privileges for Alameda alarmed investors and employees alike.

FTX is now the subject of a criminal probe. And a tally of its assets shows a “substantial amount” is either missing or stolen, a lawyer for the company told the bankruptcy court last week. That case involves more than a million creditors.

“When billions of dollars are changing hands, this isn’t a child’s game of Monopoly,” said Ty Gellasch, chief executive of the Healthy Markets Association, an advocacy group.

“You have to have record keeping that looks better than a high school kid’s lemonade stand.”

When Vox messaged Mr Bankman-Fried last week to ask where the trouble began, he blamed “messy accounting” and said he “didn’t realise the full size of it until a few weeks ago”.

“I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” he wrote in a letter to employees on November 22. “And I would give anything to be able to go back and do things over again.”

Mr Bankman-Fried spent three years at Jane Street, and there’s no black mark in his sparse employment records with brokerage regulators.

The company starts indoctrinating new traders into its mania with risk the moment they arrive, according to people with knowledge of its practices.

Quote
I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. And I would give anything to be able to go back and do things over again
Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of FTX

Its leaders allocate an unusually thick slice of capital to hedging and even maintain a doomsday trade in case the US stock market craters.

Traders at Jane Street are known to stay late, socialise over chess and go on outings to escape rooms.

But above all, its leaders expect they will maintain a level of loyalty that was more common in Wall Street’s era of partnerships, when a company’s interests always came first and discretion was paramount, according to people close to the company.

Managers wouldn’t be comfortable with employees who form a clique or champion a competing calling.

At FTX, Mr Bankman-Fried embraced a different approach, preaching effective altruism, a dedication to earning as much money as possible and then giving it all away.

Eventually, he shacked up in a Bahamas penthouse with fellow employees, who in a number of cases dated co-workers.

While Jane Street shows off a code-breaking enigma machine, FTX had video games during work hours.

Mr Bankman-Fried himself was known to play League of Legends in key meetings.

And then there was his embrace of the spotlight.

Mr Bankman-Fried’s Alameda made waves in 2019 after listing itself on the BitMex exchange’s leader board.

It was a conspicuous move even by crypto’s norms, with traders generally preferring nom-de-plumes in rankings to avoid attracting hackers or their homes being robbed.

Contacted by a Bloomberg reporter at the time, Mr Bankman-Fried said casting off anonymity was strategic — a way of broadcasting his team’s clout in the market as it prepared to launch FTX.

Two Alameda accounts were among the board’s top 10 most successful by lifetime profits.

Indeed, FTX’s ascent was rapid.

Late that year, venture capitalist Edith Yeung stopped by the Peninsula luxury hotel in Hong Kong to introduce a government official to Mr Bankman-Fried, the then-27-year-old running her latest investment.

He and his colleagues, awaiting another funding round, were renting a penthouse suite with a prime view of the city.

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It was the middle of a party when Ms Yeung arrived, she recalled in an interview with Bloomberg before the collapse of FTX.

“I remember having this guy who’s suit-and-tie and when we walked in, they were playing beer pong,” said Ms Yeung, a general partner at Race Capital.

The official turned to her and asked, “You invested in these kids?”

As FTX’s market share soared, so too did Mr Bankman-Fried’s public persona.

Soon he was everywhere, directly addressing regulators and lawmakers, while FTX bought ads and the naming rights to a stadium.

In Mr Bankman-Fried, authorities saw someone who could help bridge crypto and Wall Street.

He launched into his congressional testimony at a hearing last December by mentioning his stint as a quantitative trader. Soon, he boasted that his company offered robust round-the-clock oversight of risk, which he said anyone could check by monitoring its data.

“Unlike the traditional financial ecosystem where risk builds up overnight, where there needs to be separate risk models for weekends and overnight activity and holidays, where hours can go by with no ability to mitigate risk to the system, we have a transparent system,” he said.

Sam Bankman-Fried's inner circle had access to vital information, while top-tier executives grumbled about being left in the dark — including about Alameda’s relationship to FTX. Bloomberg

The reality was that FTX ignored some of Wall Street’s routine conventions. Messages and documents shared in FTX Slack channels automatically deleted in regular intervals, according to people familiar with the matter.

Outsiders sometimes roamed the workplace. People at companies that FTX struck deals with, and developers building on the Solana blockchain projects it supported, could come and work and hang out in its offices.

FTX’s organisation chart sometimes obscured the special status of Mr Bankman-Fried’s inner circle, current and former employees said.

They were the ones with access to vital information, while other top-tier executives grumbled about being left in the dark — including about Alameda’s relationship to FTX.

Ms Ellison, who knew Mr Bankman-Fried from their time at Jane Street, was promoted to co-chief executive of Alameda in 2021 when he stepped back from daily management of that business to focus on FTX.

For a time, they were romantically involved as they led their respective businesses, according to the people familiar with the situation.

Considering her lack of leadership experience, her appointment was surprising, one of the people said. Compared with him, she sent fewer tweets and rarely spoke to the press.

Meanwhile, people working in some of FTX’s many side ventures struggled to reach Mr Bankman-Fried for key decisions, according to another former executive.

Over the past few months, he was especially uncommunicative. Top lieutenants felt ghosted and privately fretted about finances.

In one case, part of the company nearly missed payroll. In another, bonuses were delayed.

Crypto traders could have used a doomsday trade heading into this year’s rout.

At FTX, a $60 billion mountain of collateral dwindled to $9 billion, Mr Bankman-Fried wrote in his letter last week.

He pointed to a combination of a credit squeeze, a sell-off in virtual coins and a “run on the bank”.

As part of the bankruptcy, the company is being led by John Ray, who oversaw the liquidation of Enron.

In a filing earlier this month, he decried FTX’s corporate controls and its “complete absence of trustworthy financial information”.

As part of the bankruptcy, collapsed cryptocurrency company FTX is being led by John Ray, who oversaw the liquidation of Enron. Bloomberg

FTX lacked a system for forecasting how much cash it would have available as revenue came in and bills got paid, Mr Ray wrote.

Not all of its main business silos were audited, and one that was performed was conducted by “a firm with which I am not familiar”, he said, noting that it recently announced a metaverse headquarters in Decentraland.

Ultimately, outcomes at Jane Street and FTX diverged: when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted in the US in early 2020, Jane Street’s revenue soared 54 per cent to $10.6 billion in the 12 months that followed.

When crypto prices slumped this year, and the depth of its entanglements with Alameda surfaced, FTX collapsed.

But Mr Bankman-Fried’s unravelling still had an unwelcome impact on Jane Street, elevating its profile.

Google Trends, a tool for tracking the public’s interest, shows searches for its name started climbing early this month.

Updated: December 01, 2022, 5:00 AM
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