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Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon


Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon

Cryptocurrency mogul Sam Bankman-Fried was a multibillionaire before the age of 30. Lionized by an adoring financial media, in the few hours he wasn’t working or sleeping in his office, he hung out with star athletes and supermodels, and was pursued by politicians eager to latch on to some of his largesse.

But in October 2023, his surroundings are much more prosaic and decidedly less friendly. Michael Lewis’ GOING INFINITE is the story of this modern-day Icarus’ meteoric ascent and his equally spectacular fall, told with the bestselling author’s trademark storytelling skill and elan.

Though Bankman-Fried’s saga has been widely reported, it’s understandable that those unfamiliar with the world of cryptocurrency --- a form of digital payment created using encryption algorithms that doesn’t depend on established institutions like banks --- wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. In brief, in 2019, the then-27-year-old MIT graduate established a cryptocurrency futures exchange known as FTX. His activities were so successful that by November 2021, Forbes estimated his net worth at $22.5 billion. Exactly a year later, holed up in his office at a luxury condo in the Bahamas, Bankman-Fried signed a petition placing FTX in bankruptcy. A short time after that, he was indicted in the United States on multiple felony counts of securities fraud and money laundering.

"GOING INFINITE is the story of this modern-day Icarus’ meteoric ascent and his equally spectacular fall, told with the bestselling author’s trademark storytelling skill and elan."

In late April 2022, Lewis began trailing Bankman-Fried, trying to solve the puzzle of how a man with an unruly mop of hair that looked like an exploded Brillo pad, whose typical outfit consisted of “cargo shorts, a T-shirt, limp white socks and ratty New Balance sneakers,” and who had to practice facial expressions in order to express emotion, had accumulated such wealth and influence. As Lewis efficiently sketches him in this briskly told account, Bankman-Fried, the older of two sons of a pair of Stanford Law School professors, was a typical math nerd with an affinity for video games --- smart, but hardly manifesting the kind of gifts that would rocket him to staggering wealth and potential power.

Along with a handful of acolytes with similar academic credentials, SBF --- as he’s known --- adhered to the philosophy of effective altruism popularized by Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill. As MacAskill framed it, the question for people like Bankman-Fried was clear: “Should you do good, or make money and pay other people to do good?” In other words, did it make sense to become a doctor helping impoverished people in Africa, or attempt to become insanely wealthy and hire hundreds of doctors to do that work?

Given that framing, Bankman-Fried and his associates chose the obvious answer. After a few years at the trading firm of Jane Street Capital, where he could have spent a long career that would have made him only comfortably wealthy, in October 2017 he founded Alameda Research, a hedge fund that traded cryptocurrency, followed, in May 2019, by FTX. He installed Caroline Ellison, his sometime girlfriend (Lewis quotes some of the strange memos they exchanged discussing their relationship), as CEO of Alameda.

In the meantime, Bankman-Fried went about building FTX’s brand by raining money on celebrity endorsers, including Tom Brady and his ex-wife Gisele Bündchen, buying a Super Bowl commercial featuring Larry David, and purchasing the naming rights to the Miami Heat’s arena for $155 million, among other costly endorsement deals. Bankman-Fried became a serious political donor in the 2020 election cycle and even investigated the idea of paying Donald Trump to refrain from running for reelection.

Moving from Berkeley, California, to Hong Kong, and finally to a compound at a resort in the Bahamas, Bankman-Fried worked for days at a time, shunning food and sleep as he fashioned his empire in the Wild West of the cryptocurrency boom that began in 2017, where hundreds of millions of dollars could be gained or lost in a single day. But when a rival crypto trader stoked a run on FTX’s assets in November 2022, the market discovered that Alameda, under Ellison’s management (if it can be described as that), had been using customer deposits held by FTX to cover its trading losses. Bankman-Fried’s world imploded with shocking speed.

Lewis, well-known for writing about financial matters in books like LIAR’S POKER and FLASH BOYS, never loses sight of the human story he’s telling, even as he navigates the sometimes murky depths of the cryptocurrency business. It’s not necessary to grasp many of the fine points to appreciate Bankman-Fried’s manifest unfitness to manage a curbside lemonade stand, let alone a complex financial enterprise.

In Lewis’ assessment, Bankman-Fried’s “radically hands-off approach to management” (an understatement) made FTX “a clubhouse more than a corporation.” That said, Lewis is clearly sympathetic to the man he calls “the J.P. Morgan of crypto,” whose personality and behavior suggest he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum. However, he never pinpoints any kind of psychological diagnosis that would explain his subject’s often bizarre behavior.

These days, Bankman-Fried divides his time between Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, where he was incarcerated after violating a pretrial gag order, and the federal courtroom where he’s on trial in a case that, by most accounts, is likely to end in a conviction that could earn him a sentence of more than 100 years. The fact that Ellison and a handful of other key ex-FTX executives have entered guilty pleas and are testifying against him almost guarantees a lengthy prison term.

Unlike the Bernie Madoff case, where thousands of innocent people had their trust in a con man rewarded with financial ruin, Michael Lewis doesn’t suggest that any comparable wreckage trailed in Sam Bankman-Fried’s wake. Nonetheless, GOING INFINITE is a stark reminder that when someone’s outsized financial success appears too good to be true, we shouldn’t be surprised if it is.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 20, 2023

Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon
by Michael Lewis

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2023
  • Genres: Business, Economics, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324074337
  • ISBN-13: 9781324074335