The Economic Club of New York has hosted kings, prime ministers, and presidents, as well as Amazon.com Inc.'s Jeff Bezos and JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s Jamie Dimon. Central bankers' comments at the 115-year-old organization have moved markets. Sam Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire, is probably the first person to play a computer game while giving a talk.
As the featured guest one morning in February, Bankman-Fried looks schlubby as usual, reclining on a gaming chair in blue shorts and a gray T-shirt advertising his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, his mop of curly hair flattened by his headphones. He's speaking by Zoom from his office in the Bahamas.
Off camera, the detritus of someone who more or less lives at work litters his desk: crumpled bills from the U.S. and Hong Kong, nine tubes of lip balm, a stick of deodorant, a 1.5‑pound canister of sea salt labeled “SBF's salt shaker,” and an open packet of chickpea korma that he had for lunch the day before. The beanbag where his assistant says he sleeps most weekdays is so close he could practically roll onto it.
As he fields questions about how the U.S. should regulate his industry, he pulls up a fantasy game called Storybook Brawl, chooses to play as “Peter Pants,” and prepares for battle with someone who goes by “Funky Kangaroo.”
“We're anticipating a lot of growth in the United States,” Bankman-Fried says as he casts a spell on one of the knights in his fairy-tale army.
The novelty of appearances like this has long since worn off for Bankman-Fried, who's testified before Congress twice since December. The previous weekend, he watched the Super Bowl from box seats just in front of NBA star Steph Curry—an FTX endorser. There was lunch with basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal and a party DJ'd by the head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The singer Sia invited him to a dinner at a Beverly Hills mansion with Bezos and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, where Kate Hudson sang the national anthem and he chatted about crypto with pop star Katy Perry. The next day she told her 154 million followers on Instagram, in an unsolicited endorsement, “im quitting music and becoming an intern for @ftx_official ok”
Bankman-Fried is so blasé that he lets me watch his six screens over his shoulder as he fields the kind of messages that most executives protect like state secrets. Just that morning he appeared on NPR and emailed with reporters for Puck and the New York Times. His top Washington strategist wrote at one point to say that Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, would sign on to his preferred approach to regulation. Bankman-Fried got a message saying MoneyGram International Inc. was for sale and spent a few seconds considering whether the company could be a good bet. An assistant informed him that the head of an investment bank was in the Bahamas and wanted to visit him for five minutes. “Meh,” Bankman-Fried wrote back. That evening he planned to fly to the Munich Security Conference for a meeting with the prime minister of Georgia.
Given the insane speed and riskiness of his climb to the top echelons of the financial world, almost anything else must seem low stakes by comparison. Five years ago, Bankman-Fried was working for a charitable organization that promoted the then-fringe idea of “effective altruism”: using scientific reasoning to figure out how to do the most good for the most people. Then he spotted a seemingly too-good-to-be-true pricing anomaly in Bitcoin and decided that, for him, the right path would be making tons of money to give away. Now, Bankman-Fried is one of the richest people in the world, with a fortune of more than $20 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, after venture capitalists recently invested in FTX and its U.S. arm at a combined $40 billion valuation.
For all his wealth, Bankman-Fried tells me his core philosophy remains the same. He'll keep enough money to maintain a comfortable life: 1% of his earnings or, at minimum, $100,000 a year. Other than that, he still plans to give it all away—every dollar, or Bitcoin, as the case may be. He's a kind of crypto Robin Hood, beating the rich at their own game to win money for capitalism's losers. Yet he's now part of the power structure that causes the problems he says he wants to fix. He makes big political contributions and pushes his company's agenda in Washington. And so far he's donated less to charity than he's spent on naming rights for the Miami Heat's arena (cost: $135 million over 19 years) and airing a Super Bowl ad with comedian Larry David portraying a curmudgeonly crypto skeptic (an estimated $30 million). He sees no inconsistency; he's investing to maximize the amount of good he does, eventually, even if he's risking what he's already made in crypto.
As by far the richest person to emerge from the effective-altruism movement, Bankman-Fried is a thought experiment from a college philosophy seminar come to life. Should someone who wants to save the world first amass as much money and power as possible, or will the pursuit corrupt him along the way?
The way Bankman-Fried's peers describe him, he sounds like a strange sort of capitalist monk. One says he worked so hard in the early days that he rarely showered. Another says he swore off relationships because he doesn't have time. It seems like he views even sleep as an unnecessary luxury. “Every minute you spend sleeping is costing you X thousand dollars, and that directly means you can save this many less lives,” says Matt Nass, a colleague and childhood friend.
These days, Bankman-Fried lives in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. FTX is planning to build a 1,000-employee campus overlooking the ocean. For now it's headquartered in a one-story red-roofed building near the airport. Desks are still labeled with names written on sticky notes, as if the roughly 60 people who work there haven't had time to unpack. The day before his prestigious talk/Storybook Brawl gaming session, as I'm talking to his assistant in the break room, Bankman-Fried shuffles in shoeless, wearing white crew socks. “Oh, hey,” he says. We sit down later in a conference room. I ask him about his trip to the Super Bowl. “I don't know if ‘fun' is exactly the word I would use to describe it,” Bankman-Fried says, scratching an itchy patch on his arm. “Parties are not my scene.”
Bankman-Fried lives like a college student perpetually cramming for finals. He drives a Toyota Corolla, and when he's not at the office, he crashes at an apartment with 10 or so roommates, though it's a penthouse at the island's nicest resort. Bankman-Fried figures as many as five of his co-workers are also billionaires. All are around his age. Friends say he calmly assesses the odds in any situation, whether it's in the middle of a board-game marathon or after he's been nudged awake on his beanbag to weigh in on a tricky trade. He tells me that, while he doesn't like to waste time by economizing, he doesn't see much value in buying things.
“You pretty quickly run out of really effective ways to make yourself happier by spending money,” Bankman-Fried says. “I don't want a yacht.”
The crypto industry might seem like an odd choice for a do-gooder: It's facilitated endless scams, turned ransomware into an industry, and sucks up tons of energy—as much as the country of Malaysia, by some estimates. Bankman-Fried doesn't see it that way. He says FTX is running an honest market, checks customers' backgrounds, buys carbon credits to offset its emissions, and is more efficient than the mainstream financial system. But it's clear the main appeal for him is getting rich quick.
He smiles as he shares a chart that shows FTX growing faster than his largest competitors, such as Binance. The market is huge. FTX is only the No. 3 crypto exchange by volume yet handles $15 billion of trading on a good day. Instead of shares of Microsoft Corp., users are buying and selling Bitcoin, Ether, Dogecoin, and hundreds of other weird cryptocurrencies.
Bankman-Fried has set his sights on the U.S. market, which is dominated by Coinbase Global Inc. He wants to offer cryptocurrency futures, swaps, and options, which he sees as a potential $25 billion-a-day market. If he succeeds in taking over crypto, the mainstream finance industry is next. “We're sort of playing in the kiddie pool,” Bankman-Fried says. “Ideally, I would want FTX to become the biggest source of financial transactions in the world.”
The me-first ethics of the novelist Ayn Rand have been the inspiration of ruthless entrepreneurs from Uber Technologies Inc.'s Travis Kalanick to tech mogul Peter Thiel. Bankman-Fried's capitalist muse is the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton and an animal-rights advocate. Bankman-Fried first came across Singer's work when he was a teenager living in Berkeley, Calif. His parents are both Stanford law professors. His mother also runs an influential data-driven Democratic donor group, and his father trained as a clinical psychologist.
In writings since the 1970s, Singer has posed a deceptively simple ethical question: If you walked by a child drowning in a shallow pond, would you stop to pull her out, even if it would muddy your clothes? He then argued that if you'd do that—and who wouldn't?—you have no less of a duty to save a faraway person from starvation by donating to an international aid group. Not giving large sums of money away is as bad as letting the child drown.
Bankman-Fried agrees, though he wasn't always sure what to do about it. “It is very demanding, if you take it seriously,” he says. “But I do think it's basically right. Like, if that's the right thing to do, then I don't want to deny that because it seems hard.” By 2012, when he was a junior studying physics at MIT, he described himself as a utilitarian like Singer and had become a vegan. He joined a coed fraternity called Epsilon Theta, where, instead of throwing keggers, members stayed up all night playing board games and slept in an attic full of bunk beds. Bankman-Fried recruited other “Thetans” to hand out pamphlets for an anti-factory-farm group.
That year, Bankman-Fried went to a talk by Will MacAskill, a 25-year-old doctoral student at Oxford who was trying to turn Singer's ideas into a movement. He and his collaborators aimed to use mathematical calculations to figure out how individuals could do the most good with their money and time. They dubbed it “effective altruism.”
Over lunch, MacAskill told Bankman-Fried more about another one of his ideas: “earning to give.” He said that for someone of Bankman-Fried's mathematical talents, it might make sense to pursue a high-paying job on Wall Street, then donate his earnings to charity. GiveWell, an effective-altruism group based in Oakland, Calif., says each $4,500 spent on insecticide-treated bed nets to fight malaria in Africa can save one life. MacAskill estimated at the time that a successful banker who donated half her income could save 10,000 lives over the course of a career.
MacAskill's ideas are controversial. Some say the ends don't justify the means—that Wall Street perpetuates inequality and undermines whatever good might be done by donations. (MacAskill argues that while altruists shouldn't take jobs that harm society, much of finance is neutral.) Others say the movement flatters the rich by painting them as heroes and fails to address the root causes of poverty. “Effective altruism doesn't try to understand how power works, except to better align itself with it,” Amia Srinivasan, an Oxford philosophy professor, wrote in a 2015 review of a book by MacAskill.
But MacAskill's pitch appealed to the young utilitarian. MacAskill, laughing, remembers Bankman-Fried's matter-of-fact response: “He basically said, ‘Yep, that makes sense.' ”