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The FTX affair – of human flaws and failures

The FTX affair – of human flaws and failures
A BitBase cryptocurrency exchange in Barcelona, Spain, on 16 May 2022. (Photo: Angel Garcia / Bloomberg)

What happened last week has little to do with the technology of blockchain and everything to do with the necessary presence of humans scattered around the growing crypto ecosystem.

Last week I wrote about the $32-billion implosion of the third-largest crypto exchange, FTX, and the likely criminal activities of its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF). I predicted contagion, and other horrors emerging, which happened within days and continues to grow, even accelerate.

And then I suggested that many cryptoverse builders had ignored the lessons that traditional finance has learnt over the past 1,000 years. Which had some people yelling at me. I am going to try again through a different lens.

First, know that the FTX affair has continued to spread, scalding everything in its path. It is far from over, and every day brings new misery to mostly innocent people. I suspect that we haven’t seen the half of it. Probably less.

It was perpetrated by one bad actor, with the connivance of a few close associates (all of whom have now fled the US, trying to find their way to Dubai, which does not have an extradition treaty).

SBF was charming, articulate, young and reasonably modest in a loud and brash space. And yet he fooled everyone. Supposedly wise investors and VC elders gave him billions. Celebrities and politicians wanted to be seen with him. Billionaire Anthony Scaramucci, ex-White House communications director, even described him as “the next JP Morgan”.

And more than 100,000 small players were seduced into trusting him with their money. They have lost every cent they invested. There is no government insurance in this world.  

Read in Daily Maverick: “FTX latest: balance-sheet blow-up reverberates in crypto markets

What has now been uncovered beggars belief. More than 100 companies had been set up as part of his empire. Depositors’ funds (supposedly safely lodged on a blockchain) were freely loaned and intermingled with entirely unrelated projects (this is absolutely verboten under law; jail awaits anyone in traditional finance who tries this). Risk management at his companies, as described by the young CEO of Alameda Research (SBF’s trading company) in the truly appalling 54-second video clip below is almost too shocking to be believed.

Amphetamine use was encouraged. Software security was, well, paper-thin (it has even emerged that he had a “back-door” into the software that allowed him to move cryptocurrency around, one which no one else at FTX may even have known about).

It was, as one pundit described it, an out-of-control junior frat house party with no adults in sight.

No trust

This scenario was exactly one of the core problems that the original blockchain techno-philosophers sought to solve. They wanted to build a system which could be “trustless”, meaning that no individuals, corporations or state actors could interfere with or debase the system. The intent was that there should be no one to trust, and therefore no one who could breach that trust. And it is humans who breach trust, as in the case of SBF. Take humans out of the loop, and you don’t need trust.

Only you can’t. Not always.

There are exceptions though. The largest on-chain Defi crypto exchange is called Uniswap. It has processed $1-trillion in transactions in its short life, moving various crypto tokens between buyers and sellers. There are no humans anywhere. No legal entity, no CEO, no brokers, no board of directors, no call centres. Just hardened code. This is the way it is supposed to work.

Read in Daily Maverick: “FTX Meltdown Has ‘Whiffs’ of Enron-Like Scandal, Summers Says

But humans are generally a part of economic and transactional ecosystems; to imagine a world in which this is not true is to lean into science fiction. And because of this, the utopia of trustlessness often fails to materialise.

Consider the borders of the cryptoverse, that liminal space between the real world and the blockchain. It is where there is a necessary handshake between real-world money and cryptocurrency, or real-world title deeds and NFTs, or real-world justice systems and smart contracts. There are always humans at these borders. Banks, centralised exchange managers, state attestors, judges and attorneys, software developers. All of these humans may have human flaws. Mistakes, incompetence, predilections to illogic, bias, even transparent malfeasance, as in the case of SBF.

Where there are humans there is risk.

Read more news and analysis on the latest in the world of cryptocurrency

I’m probably swimming upstream here, but I do not think that SBF from FTX or Zhu from Three Arrows Capital (another spectacular crash) or Do Kwon from Terra Luna (another spectacular crash) got into crypto to steal money. I am confident that there was no original criminal intent. They failed to understand the complex world of financial risk, things that grey, quiet and anonymous back-office banking technocrats and regulation bureaucrats understand well.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Crypto markets pull back from brink in respite from FTX rout

And so these well-intentioned crypto entrepreneurs found themselves tumbling into an unfamiliar hole at the first arrival of a macro bear market. And then lost sight of everything as they took greater and greater risks to try to “make good” again.

What happened last week has little to do with the technology of blockchain and everything to do with the necessary presence of humans scattered around the growing crypto ecosystem. And yet trustlessness remains a beguiling prospect.

Flawed humans and flawless code. That bridge has not been built yet. DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor of Practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and The End of Banks.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Craig King says:

    So basically just like a cashier taking cash out of the petty cash tin and putting in an iou to cover it. Then along comes the accountant, sees what happened and demands the cash back. The cashier hasn’t got it, gets fired and sued for the cash and loses everything to the sheriff.

    Call it crypto, swap it for FXX tokens and gamble it away till the rubes try and cash out. Oops, sorry but those bribed Democrats will protect me but not you. Cheers.

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