Editor’s Note: Casey Michel is a writer and investigative journalist covering kleptocracy and dark money networks across the globe. He is the author of “American Kleptocracy: How the US Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History,” and is at work on a book investigating foreign lobbying in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
On Tuesday, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment that revealed eight criminal charges against former FTX head Sam Bankman-Fried, including wire fraud and several counts of conspiracy. And the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged him with defrauding customers and investors.
Officials allege that Bankman-Fried, 30, spent years lying about the financial health of FTX, a crypto exchange which collapsed in November in one of the most spectacular financial implosions in years. Bankman-Fried is currently in the Bahamas, where FTX operated from, and is awaiting an extradition hearing.
The entire fiasco is completely unsurprising, and in many ways could have been foreseen — as indeed some did. After all, this is hardly the first case of alleged fraud we’ve seen from a figure like Bankman-Fried. And, as opposed to what any lawyer would advise, SBF, as he is commonly known, didn’t remain silent. He went on an apology tour, tweeting, speaking to reporters and even virtually participating in the yearly DealBook Summit in New York last month where he said he “didn’t ever try to commit fraud on anyone.”
In some ways, these kinds of cases, many of which resemble traditional Ponzi schemes, are as old as American capitalism itself. They almost always pair a lack of regulation and oversight with promises of easy wealth schemes, all predicated on some kind of proprietary technology that seems to generate returns out of thin air.
Just look through American history, and the same story repeats itself, over and over. In America’s initial “Great Depression,” the Panic of 1873, speculative investors operating without any oversight in the railroad industry effectively crashed the American economy, leading to spiraling bank failures and widespread destitution.
A half-century later in the late 1920s, the crash of the stock market — which more Americans had poured funds into, without any kind of oversight — propelled a series of bank runs that led to the actual Great Depression. And in 2008, faulty loans repackaged as unique financial products sparked the Great Recession, with regulators asleep at the wheel along the way — all of which not only crashed the economy, but led to a foreclosure crisis, whose reverberations are still being felt.
Time and again, America’s financial industry has seen the emergence of new, untested financial tools — railroad bonds, stock purchases, mortgage derivatives — emerge without any kind of proper regulation and oversight. Time and again, money has raced in, looking to take advantage of the new industries and financial tools. And time and again, others have taken advantage of the new investors — and looted as much of the wealth as they could.
The details of Bankman-Fried’s alleged fraud will likely take months, and potentially even longer, to disentangle. But the broader story is relatively straightforward, and familiar: He allegedly spent years defrauding unsuspecting investors of gargantuan sums of money, and then allegedly used that money to not only bankroll his lavish lifestyle, but to set up tens of millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions.
And all the while, he claimed that FTX maintained a specific “risk engine” that would keep the company’s finances healthy, and presented himself as the cautious, conservative face of the chaotic crypto industry. But as one SEC official said, “That veneer wasn’t just thin, it was fraudulent.”
Between the overall lack of regulation and the influx of billions of dollars into the crypto industry over the past year, the only thing surprising about the FTX collapse is that it didn’t happen sooner.
In that sense, Bankman-Fried may be no different than his predecessors. Given the continued lack of regulation and oversight in the crypto industry, Bankman-Fried is not only a new version of an old story, but hopefully the start of long-overdue change in the industry, with the kinds of regulations and transparency needed to prevent other scammers, fraudsters and criminals from simply stepping in to replace Bankman-Fried.