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Exclusive: 30-year-old billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried has been called the next Warren Buffett. His counterintuitive investment strategy will either build him an empire—or end in disaster

August 1, 2022, 9:30 AM UTC
Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of FTX.
Photograph by Spencer Heyfron

Sam Bankman-Fried does not look like the most powerful man in crypto. Friendly and rumpled, with an unruly halo of curly hair, the 30-year-old widely known as SBF has an affinity for League of Legends, fidget spinners, and other trappings of nerd culture. But underneath the goofy facade is a trading wunderkind whose ambition knows no limits. An MIT physics grad, SBF honed his trading skills at renowned quant shop Jane Street Capital before launching a successful firm of his own, Alameda Research. In 2019 he founded crypto exchange FTX, hailed by some as the best derivatives platform ever built.¹

Already a multibillionaire entrepreneur (his fortune is valued at $11.5 billion or so), today SBF has a new identity: crypto’s white knight, swooping in to save some of the startups struggling amid the “crypto winter” in which Bitcoin and other assets have crash-landed. We sat down with him on a recent visit to New York to talk about his investments, the future of crypto, and his endgame for FTX.

This edited Q&A has been condensed for space and clarity.

Winter is … here

Sam, a lot of people in the industry predicted the current crypto winter. Did you? And if so, did you think it would be this bad?

Bankman-Fried: Yes and no. I would not have guessed this bad.² But if you told me that Nasdaq was gonna be down 40% from its peak, then I would have guessed. Probably only a third of this [market] move was crypto specific. And the other two-thirds was just macro events.³

Previous crypto crashes in 2014 and 2018 were followed by the industry bouncing
back stronger than ever. Will it be the same this time?

I think we’ve already seen the worst of it; there’s a little more to come, but it’s not very bad. And I think it’s been a healthy weeding out. It’s been healthy that people have had to rethink how to value assets and had to be a little more grounded—and to realize that we’ll build back a stronger industry.

Now, that is all with the assumption that the overall macro environment doesn’t degrade from here. If the Nasdaq has another 25% left to drop, and if interest rates are actually going up to 7%, and if we’re going to be in a recession for two and a half years—in that world, I think Bitcoin might go down to $15K or $10K. Then there may be a new round of carnage that comes from that.

Greed is good?

Once dubbed the “prince of risk” for his trading exploits, SBF has lived up to the label during the downturn, investing in numerous troubled ventures and exemplifying the Warren Buffett maxim: Be “greedy when others are fearful.”

Acting much like a one-man central bank, SBF has backstopped players including struggling lender BlockFi (with a $400 million credit facility) and crypto asset broker Voyager Digital (a loan of around $500 million), which is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Meanwhile, he has also taken about a 7.6% stake in trading app Robinhood, and outright acquired a crypto gaming company. SBF’s dominance has sparked comparisons to J.P. Morgan and other plutocrats who scooped up assets during earlier eras of turbulence in American finance.

You’ve weathered this downturn pretty well and used it to acquire stakes in a number of other companies. What’s the strategy here?

Bankman-Fried: There are a few things that go into it. First: Is there a way for us to backstop customer assets? The second thing is stopping contagion spread. You know, if a place blows up, can it cause more places to blow up? Are we gonna see a chain reaction?

And then the third thing, subordinate to those two: Is there a good deal for us here? Or to be precise, is there a “not bad” deal for us here? The mandate here was not to try to make amazing acquisitions. The mandate here was to make deals that are kind of reasonable, maybe even a little bad, but not horrific.

A longtime crypto insider told me you’re going to come out of this looking like Warren Buffett—owning a lot, and everyone owing you a lot of favors. Do you think that’s overstating it?

I hope it’s not overstating it, though it might be. I want to be in a position where when we work with people, we’re a little more generous than we have particular reason to be.

The bigger piece of this, frankly, is a trust thing where I don’t want to have to worry when I’m doing a deal about whether the other side is going to try and fuck me in 20 ways I’m not anticipating. Because if that’s true, just doing the deal becomes fucking impossible, right?

I want to set a standard, like, “Look, we’re just not going to try and fuck you, we’re gonna try and be reasonable, we’re going to try and be generous when we can. Let’s just try to work reasonably together and consider things from what is good for the sum-of-us perspective and then we can think about splitting the pie.”

Lack of trust is an enormous transaction cost, and I underestimated this when I first got into business.

FTX is known for allowing users to trade derivatives.⁶ But derivatives are a product that few people understand let alone use, even if you splash the FTX brand everywhere.

The branding things we’re doing⁷ are not for direct customer acquisition. As you said, most people are not trading crypto derivatives, and we don’t even offer them in the United States. It’s much more of a corporate branding thing than it is a customer acquisition thing.

But I think your core point is right that, eventually, we need to have use cases that make people’s lives directly better. That’s something I wish the industry did a lot more.

So are you saying this lack of utility for crypto is FTX’s problem too?

Yes, and frankly we’ve been trying to find people to [build more practical crypto applications]. I don’t think running a blockchain social media network is a great fit for FTX, but we’d be super happy to help technologically with that. I want someone to build that out and do a great job of it.

We’ve been very actively seeking out projects with compelling use cases that we can invest in. I would be lying if I said I haven’t had conversations with our senior developers like, “Here are some things I think it is important for the industry to build. How long would it take us to build them?”

The sort of response I get back is like, “Jesus Christ, Sam, we can’t also start a whole new company in the next three months.” But at some point, we will pull the trigger on that if no one else is doing it.

No bro

The crypto world loves to embrace larger-than-life heroes like Satoshi, Bitcoin’s pseudonymous founder, and Changpeng Zhao, maverick CEO of giant trading exchange Binance.

And while SBF looks to be joining that pantheon, he stands out, shattering many of the “crypto bro” stereotypes. The son of Stanford Law professors, he was among Joe Biden’s largest donors in 2020, and he espouses a philosophy of altruism and moral obligation. SBF says he’s a vegan because he’s repulsed by the cruelty of industrial animal farms, and shows little appetite for the garish consumption practiced by other wealthy crypto figures. He is, in other words, very unlike many people in the community of which he is now the de facto leader.

You’ve said you came to crypto because you saw a way to make a lot of money— not because you want to change the world or replace the government and all that stuff. It’s kind of refreshing, frankly. But does your outlook cause tension with crypto true believers?

Bankman-Fried: I would like to think that I’ll do right by the people who believe in this space the most, but that’s incumbent on me. There’s been skepticism of me from people who, correctly, view me as coming at it from a pragmatic rather than ideological perspective. I believe in blockchain because I think it’s useful and can make the world better in very specific practical ways.

My belief is that the industry is contingent on blockchains ultimately being able to have a real positive impact on the world. I’d like to think I do a good job of representing other people who believe in the industry even if they came at it from a different angle originally, but there is always a little bit of unease there.

Charts show price of ETH and BTC since November 2021

It feels like the world is on fire right now with the march of authoritarianism, the climate crisis, and so on. To tackle all this, it seems we need, if not Scandinavian-style socialism, at least some form of collectivism. And yet, the crypto community’s worldview is typically a hyper-libertarian, individualistic one. Do you ever worry crypto may be contributing to the decline of civic order?

I think it’s weird. Let me give you two different takes on the same topic. When you think about authoritarianism, you can think about it in terms of needing collective action to resist it. Or you can think about it in terms of crypto itself being anathema to authoritarianism. And I think there’s truth to both of those, right?

I think a domineering and uncaring attitude, and being willing to trample on other people, has brought a lot of these bad things to the world. That is very much not what the crypto space has stood for—and I think crypto is a good counterpoint to that.

But on the other hand, you can’t just not play the game at all, right? You can’t just ignore [something like authoritarianism] and say, “We’re going to have our decentralized island and ignore what’s going on around us in the world.” You do have to engage, and crypto can be a piece of that. But it can’t be the whole answer—not everything is about everything.

Those are some big ideas. Let’s end on something lighter. Barring any major macro shocks, what’s your best guess for the price of Ethereum? And could Bitcoin hit $100,000 in two years?

Boy, Ethereum is interesting. Obviously, with the upcoming merge⁹, there’s huge volatility, right? I think it could get way better or way worse—I just don’t know the answer.

I think Bitcoin’s a little bit easier to predict. If there’s more pain and more liquidations, that changes things. But a bit more recovery from the carnage, and regulatory clarity—that could be a big exogenous shock, a positive shock that could come over the next year. We’d be lucky to hit $100K, but I wouldn’t rule it out. But, you know, if you told me at the end of the year, Bitcoin is gonna be at $35K, I’d fucking take that.

Sam’s shopping spree

While the implosion of the crypto markets has led most survivors to hunker down and conserve cash, SBF has seized the moment as a buying opportunity. As his web of influence grows, will he get too big for an industry that prizes decentralization? Or, despite his Bahamian address, might he attract the ire of U.S. regulators? We’ll see. In the meantime, a look at some of his recent deals, which he has conducted both as an individual and through various corporate vehicles he controls.

BlockFi

At the height of the crypto boom, the lending company was offering consumers returns of 9% or more through simplified access to so-called DeFi markets. But like many of its peers, BlockFi ran into liquidity trouble this spring. SBF swooped in with a $400 million credit facility, saying the loan would help BlockFi “navigate the market from a position of strength.” Should it fail to do so, the deal also gives SBF an option to acquire BlockFi outright.

Robinhood

Since its IPO last year, Robinhood’s stock has taken a beating, falling over 80% to below $10 this spring. That led SBF to pounce. In May, he snapped up a 7.6% stake in the troubled stock-trading and crypto app. SBF has been cagey about his plans for Robinhood, but there’s been speculation that he could buy it—and its valuable customer list—outright.

Voyager Digital

Like BlockFi, Voyager is a crypto lender that ran into postcrash solvency problems. SBF offered a loan facility in the form of $200 million and 15,000 Bitcoins in June. The company drew on $75 million of that before filing for bankruptcy in May. (The bankruptcy documents reveal that in addition to being one of Voyager’s biggest creditors, FTX is also one of its biggest debtors.)

Good Luck Games

In March, FTX obtained Good Luck Games, a crypto-focused company founded by veterans of the card game Magic: The Gathering. The deal supports a thesis that SBF is looking ahead to the next phase of crypto, which many believe will have a large gaming component.

Exchanges in Japan, Canada, Korea

FTX acquired a Japanese trading platform called Liquid in February and then in June picked up Bitvo, a Canadian exchange. The price of each deal was not disclosed, but each company has previously been valued above $1 billion. In late July, news reports said FTX was on the cusp of buying Korean exchange Bithumb. These buys offer a way for FTX to grow its customer base—but also a fast track to international expansion since the acquired companies have established relations with local regulators.

Between the lines

(1) Steady now: In January, before the worst of the crypto winter, FTX raised $400 million at a $32 billion valuation. Trading operations appear to be holding strong: FTX says total volume was $76 billion in the first half of 2022 compared to $64 billion in the same period in 2021.

(2) That’s trillion with a T: Cryptocurrencies as a whole have lost about $2 trillion since the November 2021 market peak. As a result, numerous startups in the space have gone under or seen their value plummet.

(3) Nowhere to hide: Forces such as rising inflation and the Ukraine war have battered asset prices across the board, and crypto is no exception. While boosters have long argued that Bitcoin would serve as a safe haven in times of crisis, this has been belied by the current downturn.

(4) Lending a hand: See sidebar above for more on SBF’s latest deals.

(5) Pocket change? According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, SBF’s net worth has dropped by $4.7 billion in 2022.

(6) Crystal ball bets: Derivatives are trading instruments that involve predicting the future price of assets. They have a practical use—for instance, an airline might use them to hedge the future price of jet fuel—but also form the basis of huge amounts of speculative activity in crypto and elsewhere.

(7) Playing ball: During the recent crypto boom, companies engaged in a frenzy of marketing—none more so than FTX. The company paid an undisclosed amount to put its logo on every MLB umpire, spent a reported $135 million for naming rights to the arena of the NBA’s Miami Heat, and laid out a reported $6.5 million for a Super Bowl ad featuring Larry David.

(8) Charting a crash: See graphics at left for the price trends in Bitcoin and Ethereum.

(9) Merge right: Ethereum, the smart contract platform that is the second most valuable blockchain after Bitcoin, is planning a major technological upgrade known as the Merge. If successful, it will drastically reduce its energy use and improve transaction speed. The update, which has been delayed repeatedly, is currently set to be attempted in September.

This article appears in the August/September 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The Conversation: Sam Bankman-Fried.”

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