“Look, I’ve Had a Bad Month”: At DealBook Summit, Sam Bankman-Fried Gets Grilled Over FTX Implosion

At the start of Wednesday’s highly anticipated interview closing out the New York Times’ Dealbook Summit, Andrew Ross Sorkin suggested to Sam Bankman-Fried that there are two ways to view the implosion of crypto exchange FTX. There’s “the generous view is that you are a young man who made a series of terrible, terrible, very bad decisions,” Sorkin said, and “the less generous view is that you have committed a massive fraud, that this is a Ponzi scheme, a manipulation of the system.”

Bankman-Fried, who acknowledged that as CEO he had responsibilities to investors, regulators, and employees, admitted that he “made a lot of mistakes.” “I didn’t ever try to commit fraud on anyone,” said Bankman-Fried, adding that he “was excited about the prospects of FTX a month ago.”

Between sips of La Croix, Bankman-Fried repeatedly framed what went wrong with FTX as a result of him being unaware of the extent of the relationship between FTX International and Alameda Research, FTX’s sister firm that Bankman-Fried founded in 2017 and owned a majority of. “I wasn’t running Alameda, I didn’t know exactly what was going on” or “know the size of their position,” Bankman-Fried said, adding, “A lot of these things are things I’ve learned over the past month.”

Asked by Sorkin how concerned he was about criminal liability at this point, Bankman-Fried acknowledged it “sounds weird to say” but “that’s not what I’m focusing on.” He added, “There’s going to be a time and place for me to sort of think about myself and my own future, but I don’t think this is it,” his voice going up as if asking a question. 

“Look, I’ve had a bad month,” he said, to laughs from the audience. “That’s not what matters here. What matters here is the millions of customers” and “all the stakeholders at FTX who got hurt and trying to do everything I can to help them out,” added Bankman-Fried. “I don’t think what happens with me is the important part.”

The fact that Bankman-Fried, or SBF as he’s known, showed up even virtually was news, given the former CEO of FTX, the now-bankrupt crypto currency exchange that allegedly used billions of dollars’ worth of customer assets to fund bets by Alameda Research, is currently the subject of multiple criminal investigations. He’d been announced as part of the DealBook lineup a month earlier and, amid the implosion of his empire, not only remained on the roster but ascended it: the Times billed Bankman-Fried’s virtual sit-down as “The Interview,” the final event in a lineup including everyone from chief executives to Hollywood celebrities to the former vice president of the United States, and hyped the interview in the subject lines of multiple emails sent out Wednesday morning. 

Even though Bankman-Fried wasn’t physically in the room, many in the audience held up their phones to take a photo of him appearing on-screen alongside Sorkin, who took the opportunity early on to respond to criticism that he shouldn’t be conducting the interview. “I think our job as journalists is to have those conversations, is to ask those questions and seek those answers on behalf of the public,” he said, “and that is especially true right now.” 

Tickets for this year’s DealBook Summit cost a whopping $2,499. As the event opened around 8 AM, the business-clad group snacked on mini parfaits, pastries, and New York-style bagels before being ushered into the Greek-amphitheater style Appel Room—home to Jazz at Lincoln Center—set against the backdrop of a 50-foot glass wall overlooking Columbus Circle. New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien welcomed everyone back in-person for the first time in three years and previewed the jam-packed line-up, a who’s-who of tech, politics, and entertainment. “It would be surprising if they didn’t make some news today,” she said of the day’s speakers, before introducing Sorkin, the DealBook founder.

Sorkin launched DealBook 21 years ago as a newsletter and digital section of the Times—“We used to fax it to some of you,” he recalled in his opening remarks—and last year won an Emmy for his interview with Adam Neumann, the first that Neumann gave since stepping down as WeWork’s CEO two years prior. By contrast, Bankman-Fried’s interview with Sorkin is among several he’s given since falling from grace a few weeks ago. 

As I wrote earlier this month, Bankman-Fried’s ascent played out through the media, complete with covers on Fortune and Forbes, and even now, under investigation, he’s still trying to make his case publicly—which some would certainly advise against. (“Crisis managers warn Bankman-Fried: Shut up,” read a Politico headline on Tuesday.) In one interview released yesterday with YouTuber Tiffany Fong, Bankman-Fried, who was among the biggest Democratic donors, said he similarly funded Republican campaigns but didn’t publicly disclose those because “reporters freak the fuck out if you donate to Republicans” and “I didn’t want to have that fight.” 

“What are your lawyers telling you right now? Are they suggesting this is a good idea for you to be speaking?” Sorkin asked at one point, to laughs from the audience. “They are very much not,” Bankman-Fried replied, to more laughs. “The classic advice: don’t say anything, recede into a hole. That’s not who I am. That’s not who I want to be,” he said, adding that he has a “duty to talk and explain what happened” and doesn’t “see what good is accomplished by me sitting in a room pretending the outside room doesn’t exist.” 

Speakers throughout the day were asked their thoughts on FTX and crypto. “I have been skeptical, and I remain quite skeptical, but I would say, look, we have to be open to financial innovation” but crypto “is an industry that really needs to have adequate regulation, and it doesn’t,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, calling the collapse of FTX “a Lehman moment” for crypto. Yellen said she never met with SBF. “I think I won’t begin right now, either,” she said, prompting laughs from the crowd. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, whose fund had invested $24 million in FTX, pushed back against Sorkin’s assessment “that it appears that nobody was minding the store,” saying it “looks like there was some misbehaviors of major consequences,” but “if you look at the Sequoias of the world, they’ve had unbelievable returns,” and “I am sure they did the due diligence.” Investors “could have been misled,” Fink added, “but until we have more facts, I’m not going to speculate.”

During the closing interview, Sorkin mentioned receiving thousands of letters and emails prior to Wednesday’s interview, and read one to Bankman-Fried on camera, in which someone asked why SBF decided to “steal my life savings.” Asked what he would tell this man, Bankman-Fried replied, “Yeah, I mean, I’m deeply sorry about what happened.”

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