Given that I’d just rewatched “The Big Short” a few weeks ago, I thought why not try out Michael Lewis’ latest work. This is a biography of Sam Bankman-Fried that incomprehensible bitcoin genius who at one time was worth north of $26 billion but today may not be able to afford even a pizza.
After the first 2 chapters it’s already clear SBF makes ppl like Michael Blurry look normal:
- he plays video games when doing interviews on live TV during which he’d repeat “Yup” a hundred times (often without having ANY idea what’s being said)
- he often says Yes to appointments only to cancel them at the last minute; his initial Yes was simply “assigning non-zero probabilities to the proposed use of his time” (p.7)
- he fidgets non-stop compulsively, his knee often “jackhammers at 4 beats per second” (p.10)
- he seemed to be repulsed by books, by childhood, by even the modicum of authority or ‘social obligation’, by religion, by politics, by art, by English classes, by abstract debates or even concepts (“The difference between art and entertainment is a bullshit distinction dreamed up by academics justifying the existence of their jobs”, p. 30)
Needless to say, SBF is hardly a social butterfly but instead glories in his self-isolation. Nevertheless, not unlike Elon Musk, he excelled in the subjects he enjoyed and kept pushing his boundaries when it came to Maths and puzzle games, etc. “The place I am strongest is the place where you have to do things other people would find shocking” (p.36)
Other bizarre things in the book:
1. His first employer, Jane Street evaluates new applicants by making them solve puzzles and play complicated games over (and over) again. Apparently they’re looking for ppl who are good at guess-timating and making best on probabilities and uncertainties i.e. ppl with the mind of good traders?
This sort of thing is what SBF became an expert at, that ability to master puzzling things which involve quanti, bets, probabilities and money. “In the presence of strange new games, the relevant thought processes just seemed to come to Sam” (p.51).
2. SBF eventually found his life-purpose in a concept known as Effective Altruism, a movement of people wanting to make the world a better place by, among other things, giving away their money. But this isn’t just your garden-variety goodie-two shoes giving away old clothes or feeding the hungry. EA folks make it their life’s mission to a) make as much money as possible in order to b) give away(!!) their wealth to charitable causes which they believe will help the world the most.
3. How did SBF make his immense wealth?
This part is practically French to me as it involves bitcoin trading terminology. Something to do with creating bitcoin exchanges (which profited from trades involving extremely minute differences in pricing and/or value) which, somehow, exponentially attracted loads of investors.
What is Bitcoin exactly? The best expl seems to be this article by Matt Levine. But I think Lewis gets it right when he says that “Bitcoin often gets explained but somehow never stays explained” (p.138)
The amazing thing is SBF couldn’t entirely explain it either, yet he made billions by trading it and/or creating exchanges where bitcoin could be traded.
Imagine if I can buy a chicken rice from Petaling Jaya at RM7, repackage the entire dish (or not) then sell that same plate in Kuala Lumpur for RM7.50 — and doing this a million times a day. Now what if I can combine this chicken rice with laksa and popiah into some abstract bundle (which can be sold for, say, RM10 in the future) and entice people to invest in a fund which manages these quasi-products?
Now replace food with bitcoin — does it help?
4. SBF’s management style is, to my mind, horrendous. His philosophy of an organisation can be summed up by his characterization of Jane Street as “just a place where people come to work each day to play some games and increase the number in their bank account, because what the f*ck else are they going to do with their lives?” (p.82)
An employee said, “He was demanding and expecting everyone to work 18-hour days and give up anything like a normal life, while he would not show up for meetings, not shower for weeks, have a mess all around him with old food everywhere, and fall asleep at his desk. He did zero management and thought that if people had any questions, they should just ask him. Then in his one-on-ones with people, he’d play video games.” (p.84)
Or how Sam, “famously slept on the beanbag chair beside his desk in Hong Kong, but another director, too, had made a bed under his desk. Ordinary employees who thought that to be as successful as Sam was they must live as Sam did were starving themselves of sleep and occupying the workspace in unhealthy ways. One employee had gone 30 days without once leaving the Hong Kong office.” (p. 164)
This and all the crazy-extravagant expenses like paying an influencer $5 million in 2 years for “virtual lunch” or paying architects several hundred million to design a new office but not bothering to look at the plans or even talk to them.
5. So how did the collapse happen?
I can’t say I wasn’t confused (and still am). So there are two organisations, one’s a trading firm (Alameda Research) and another’s a crypto-exchange (FTX). Both are owned and run by SBF. However — and this is the crux — billions of dollars that were supposedly safe and sound inside FTX somehow found their way into Alameda. As a result of a decision in Nov 2022 by Binance (another huge crypto company) to pull out of a deal involving FTX (and one or two high-impact tweets by its CEO Changpeng Zhao) it was soon discovered that FTX was mismanaging customer funds.
And, overnight, SBF went from billionaire to bankrupt.
Lewis devotes the last ‘Act’ of the book (covering 4 chapters) to the meltdown, to how everyone was in shock, to how SBF was seen walking round and round his Bahamas office, to how to account for a whopping missing $6 billion to how the law soon showed up, his arrest, etc.
Ultimately, I think SBF lost everything because he took too many things for granted, he was juggling too many balls in the air, and he lived in a way where he believed he was immune to rules.
Lewis’ book doesn’t make him come across as some scheming criminal, hardly. I believe SBF is someone who would take $10 million from an investor and use it for his purposes (w/out telling anyone) simply bcos he’s been ignoring rules and convention all his life and, at least up until Nov ‘22’, was able to make so much money to cover up these actions it hardly registered as problematic.
In the final analysis, I think SBF was behaving in a manner better described as stupid than illegal but, as per a quote in The Big Short, “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”