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Research & Analysis

Looking Past The Frontman, Part I: William MacAskill, SBF, and Effective Altruism

[See Also: Part II & Part III]

By now everyone knows the basic story of Sam Bankman-Fried’s downfall: supposed whiz-kid becomes one of the youngest “self-made” billionaires ever, sitting atop a supposed crypto empire, only for it to abruptly collapse in spectacular fashion, drawing widespread comparisons to Enron, Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers, and other world-class financial calamities.

While much attention has been paid to the undoing of SBF, as well as the more salacious details of the story (did you know that Caroline Ellison is into polyamory and amphetamines??), perhaps one of the most underreported elements of this story is the making of SBF: How did he go from nerdy MIT undergrad to the height of wealth and influence in a few short years?

To wit: What is the “effective altruism movement,” who is William MacAskill, and what role did they play in SBF’s now-infamous career trajectory?

The most detailed account that we have is probably a lengthly article by “private historian” Adam Fisher, which was published to the website of VC firm Sequoia Capital in September of 2022, just weeks before FTX imploded.

Or — perhaps we should say it was the most detailed account, given that it was actually scrubbed from the Sequoia website shortly after news of the scandal broke. Visiting the original link now redirects the user to Sequoia’s FTX page; the story is gone.

Fortunately for us the internet has a longer memory than that, and an archived version of the article is still available for us to read courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

One might assume that Sequoia pulled the piece due to embarrassment. After all, it’s inordinately fawning in its tone, especially in retrospect (“puff piece” is an understatement), and Sequoia has egg on their face after having to mark down their roughly $210 million investment in FTX to zero.

Surely that was a factor in its removal, but—when you strip away the superfluous details and look past the author’s (ostensible) starry-eyed naivety—the “brass tacks” information in the article also happens to paint a picture that many of the individuals connected to this saga would likely prefer to keep under wraps: a “genius billionaire” who was actually groomed, guided, helped, and funded from early on by a curious network of influential and deep-pocketed handlers, without whom he never could have risen to such dizzying heights in the first place, and to whose “approved charities” Bankman-Fried directed a huge portion of “his” empire’s “philanthropic” donations.

Is that part of why this highly revealing biographical account was taken down? One can only speculate. However, because this “origin story” needs much more attention and scrutiny, here is a “Cliff’s Notes”-style summary of some of the key details of the narrative as laid out in the article, arranged in (roughly) chronological order for easier absorption. Supplemental information from other sources is occasionally added to fill in some of the missing pieces. All quoted words/phrases are Fisher’s, unless otherwise noted.

The Narrative – Simplified

  • SBF’s parents, both Stanford law professors, “[raise] him and his siblings utilitarian–in the same way one might be brought up Unitarian amid dinner-table debates about the greatest good for the greatest number.”
  • SBF has a personal blog circa his early college years where he “declares his allegiance to utilitarianism over and over,” and ultimately makes it “clear that he’s a utilitarian in its purest—Benthamite—form, and that there will be no saving himself from the implications of the Benthamite Way.”
  • SBF goes vegan and “organize[s] a campaign against factory farming” as a freshman at MIT, “inspired by [utilitarian philosopher] Peter Singer to take moral action.”
  • SBF pledges the coed fraternity Epsilon Theta at MIT.
  • SBF is introduced to “effective altruism” (EA) by “his fellow Thetans.”
  • SBF is introduced to EA co-founder MacAskill by “his fellow Theatans” during his junior year.
  • MacAskill, at the time, is “just completing his PhD” in Philosophy at Oxford and is “still virtually unknown.”
  • MacAskill is “visiting MIT in search of volunteers willing to sign on to his earn-to-give program.”
  • MacAskill’s “pitch” about EA over lunch is the moment SBF realizes his “purpose in life,” which is “to get filthy rich, for charity’s sake.”

“SBF listened, nodding, as MacAskill made his pitch. The earn-to-give logic was airtight. It was, SBF realized, applied utilitarianism. Knowing what he had to do, SBF simply said, “Yep. That makes sense.” But, right there, between a bright yellow sunshade and the crumb-strewn red-brick floor, SBF’s purpose in life was set: He was going to get filthy rich, for charity’s sake. All the rest was merely execution risk.”

  • After explaining SBF’s “purpose in life” to him, MacAskill also is the one who steers SBF (a physics major) to Jane Street, “an under-the-radar high-frequency trading shop in New York’s financial district.”

“His course established, MacAskill gave SBF one last navigational nudge to set him on his way, suggesting that SBF get an internship at Jane Street that summer.”

  • SBF interns at Jane Street in the summer of 2013, “not long” after his meeting with MacAskill.
  • SBF later becomes “one of the few such recruits invited back for a full-time job” at Jane Street.
  • As a Jane Street trader, SBF donates 50% of his income to charities, with “the biggest donations” going to charities founded by MacAskill: the Centre for Effective Aturism and 80,000 Hours. “Both charities focus on building the earn-to-give idea into a movement.”
  • Most of SBF’s friends at the time are “fellow EAs.”
  • SBF is “extremely happy at Jane Street,” “on a trajectory that would make him a very wealthy man,” and “content to stay there forever.”
  • SBF nevertheless has an “epiphany” that “he needed to take on a lot more risk in the hopes of becoming part of the global elite.”
  • SBF quits Jane Street with no specific plan and becomes unemployed. (“It was unusual… because he decided to quit—not to do anything in particular, but just under the premise that there were a lot of other options out there.” -Caroline Ellison, as quoted by Fisher)
  • SBF considers journalism, running for office, being a political advisor, working for EA full time, and founding a startup, but instead settles on “Bumming around the Bay Area for a month or so—just to see what happens.”
  • SBF moves back to the Bay Area, where MacAskill ends up offering him the job of “director of business development” at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA).
  • SBF rents an apartment near CEA HQ in Berkeley and continues to “vacation” for several weeks before starting his new job.
  • SBF spends a lot of time with his younger brother Gabe “who was living in an EA commune.”

Alameda Research

  • SBF “start[s] looking into crypto” around this time and “almost immediately” notices an arbitrage opportunity – “an anomalous delta between the price of Bitcoin in much of Asia and its price in the rest of the world” – but couldn’t execute the trade because “there was so much red tape with the banking system and currency controls that it was a difficult trade to execute.”
  • After “another day of work,” SBF successfully makes “a single round-trip trade” netting him $20, at which point he decides to “immediately put $50,000 of his own money to work.”
  • SBF faces “huge” operational challenges: KYC rules, caps on withdrawals, citizenship requirements, etc, and the fact that overall his activity “raised every red flag in the book” and “looked like laundering” and “drug money.”
  • SBF draws upon his “secret weapon,” the “EA community,” teaming up with a “Japanese grad student” EA who “volunteered to do the legwork in Japan” and “was able to open an account with the one (obscure, rural) Japanese bank that was willing, for a fee, to process the transactions” (Note: No details in the article about who this EA “grad student” was)
  • SBF incorporates Alameda Research and his initial $50K starts “compounding at 10 percent each day.”‘ (circa Sept 2017)
  • SBF is “the only trader known to have pulled this off in any meaningful way.”
  • SBF himself has said that this trade required an “incredibly sophisticated global corporate framework.”

Because of the trade’s global nature and the wire transfers involved, it would take up to a day to perform. (…) Bankman-Fried was successful where others were not because he managed to facilitate all the different components involved in the trade. For example, finding the right platform to buy Bitcoin at scale, then getting approval to use Japanese exchanges and accounts. There was also the difficulty of even getting millions of dollars out of Japan and into the US every day. “You do have to put together this incredibly sophisticated global corporate framework in order to be able to actually do this trade,” Bankman-Fried said. “That’s the real task, the real hard part.”

  • LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: SBF did not found Alameda alone. He co-founded it with Tara Mac Aulay, who had been the COO of the Centre for Effective Altruism for roughly two and a half years at that point, and became the CEO right around the same time (read much more about this here; none of this is mentioned by Fisher)
  • SBF goes “looking for a $50 million loan,” for which he “Again… reached out to the EA community.”
  • Jaan Tallinn, an EA and cofounder of Skype, “put up a good chunk of that initial $50 million.” (Note: As of 2018 Tallin had already “been an effective altruist for many years,” per the official EA website.)
  • “With this goosed-up capital account, the money started piling up,” and SBF hires 15 people who were “all from the EA pool.”
  • Among this first round of hirees were SBF’s friend Caroline Ellison (quits Jane Street), and SBF’s brother Gabe’s friend Nishad Singh (quits Facebook).
  • Singh says: “This thing couldn’t have taken off without EA … All the employees, all the funding—everything was EA to start with.”
  • Alameda funnels 50% of its profits to “EA-approved charities.”
  • When he first told Ellison about Alameda, SBF was “uncharacteristically shifty” and evasive.

Ellison wanted to catch up, but from the get-go, SBF was acting uncharacteristically shifty. There were several canceled coffee dates, and when the two finally did get together… SBF evaded even the most innocuous of questions. “So,” Ellison asked after joining SBF at a table, “what have you been up to in the last few months?” (…) “Oh,” SBF responded cryptically, “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” “Okay, that’s fine,” Ellison said, sipping her tea. Uncomfortable silence. “Well, I guess I could tell you if you really want…” SBF offered after a moment.

FTX

  • SBF decides to “double down again” and “bet Alameda’s multimillion-dollar trading profits” on a “new venture,” i.e., creating FTX.
  • SBF only gives himself a 20% “chance of success,” but “needed extreme risk to maximize the expected value of his lifetime earnings—and, therefore, the good his earn-to-give strategy could do.”

“It sounds crazy, or perhaps even selfish—but it’s not. It’s math. … it’s selfish not to go for broke—if you’re planning on giving it all away in the end anyway.” -Fisher, summarizing SBF’s alleged reasoning

  • SBF moves “the nascent company” to Hong Kong
  • SBF raises $1 billion dollars for FTX from “a who’s who of Silicon Valley VCs.”
  • SBF raises another $420.69 million from 69 donors “shortly” thereafter (the “meme round”)
  • SBF moves FTX to Nassau, capital city of the Bahamas (fall of 2021).
  • FTX buys a bunch of apartments in a nearby development co-owned by Justin Timberlake and Tiger Woods, which are then rented out to employees at a subsidized rate. Other properties in the development are owned by rich celebrities like Cardi B. and Steph Currey.
  • SBF has “a net worth, as estimated by Forbes, that’s higher than the vast majority (80 percent) of the world’s billionaires” by 2022, and has “amassed more wealth in a shorter period of time than anyone else, ever.”
  • SBF lives with friends/coworkers in a “palatial” pentahouse “with six bedrooms and spectacular views out every window,” which sits atop a “spectacular” building with “wraparound verandas” that “provide views of both the harbor and the ocean.” It is “likely the most expensive condo in all of the Bahamas.”

The FTX Foundation

  • SBF sets up the FTX Foundation.
  • Alameda’s “purpose” at this point “seems to be” to generate profits (around $100M-$1B per year) “that can be stuffed into the brand-new FTX Foundation.”
  • FTX donates 1% of “net FTX fees” on the “nearly $5 billion” worth of trades per day to the FTX Foundation.
  • The FTX Foundation “in turn, gives to a diversified group of EA-approved charities.”
  • FTX hosts a “weekly mixer” in their “corporate compound” in the Bahamas to “provide a friendly forum for the EAs who actually run EA-aligned nonprofits to meet the earn-to-give EAs at FTX who will fund them, and vice versa”

This is approximately where Fisher’s article devolves into full-blown hagiography while leaving out key details, so let’s pick up the summary where he leaves off.

The FTX Foundation (cont.)

  • Nick Beckstead is named CEO of the FTX Foundation. (source)
  • Beckstead had “been working as a grantmarker and research in the effective altruism community since 2009.” (source)
  • Beckstead was previously a Research Fellow at Oxford like William MacAskill. (Beckstead was at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, while MacAskill is currently at the the Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute.) (source)
  • Beckstead also “helped launch the Centre for Effective Altriusm,” of which MacAskill is co-founder and President (source)
  • William MacAskill is named to the four-person team that will manage the FTX Foundation’s “Future Fund,” along with Beckstead and two others. (source)
  • The Future Fund says they “plan to distribute at least $100M this year, and potentially a lot more, depending on how many outstanding opportunities we find. In principle, we’d be able to deploy up to $1B this year” (source)
  • Of the $140 million that the FTX Foundation reportedly ends up distributing prior to FTX’s collapse, $90 million “went through the Future Fund.” (NY Times)
  • Of that $90 million, “a significant share of the grants went to groups focused on building the effective altruist movement rather than organizations working directly on its causes” (NY Times)
  • $15 million—”the largest single grant listed on the Future Fund website”— went to “a group called Longview, which according to its website” counts MacAskill and Beckstead “among its own advisors.” (NY Times)
  • $13.9 million—the second largest grant— went to the Center for Effective Altruism, of which (again) MacAskill is the co-founder and President. Additionally: “Both Mr. Beckstead and Mr. MacAskill are on the group’s board of trustees, with Mr. MacAskill serving as the chair of the [UK] board and Mr. Beckstead as the chair of the U.S. subsidiary.” (NY Times)

Conclusion

So, there you have it: a highly abridged rough outline of the “rise of SBF,” as told by Fisher, with added details from a few other sources.

Who told SBF his “life’s purpose”? MacAskill

Who led SBF to Jane Street? MacAskill

Who co-founded EA and the Oxford-based CEA? MacAskill

Who offered SBF a job working for the CEA? MacAskill

Who cofounded Alameda with SBF shortly thereafter? The CEO of the CEA, who also happened to be a crypto trader.

Who (allegedly) opened the bank account for Alameda in Japan? An EA grad student

Who was tapped for $50 million by Alameda? “The EA community,” particularly EA Jaan Tallinn.

Who were the first 15 people hired at Alameda? 15 EAs

Who was made CEO of the FTX Foundation, controlling tens of millions in “charitable funds”? Longtime EA grantmaker Nick Beckstead, a former research fellow at Oxford, like MacAskill

Who made up the “team” of the FTX Foundation’s Future Fund? MacAskill, Beckstead, and two other EA’s from Oxford.

Who did the largest grants go to? EA organizations linked to MacAskill and Beckstead.

Who does the media focus approximately 99% of their attention on? SBF

Keep your eye on the ball.

[Update: Part II and Part III of this series, “Looking Past The Frontman,” are now available]

Image: Decensored News (CC BY-SA 4.0), using photos by Sam Deere (CC BY-SA 4.0), Fronteiras do Pensamento (CC BY-SA 2.0), EAGAccount (CC BY-SA 4.0), with modifications.
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