60 pages • 2 hours readMichael Lewis
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The nonfiction book Going Infinite (2023) by Michael Lewis explores the world of cryptocurrency through the figure of Sam Bankman-Fried, a young billionaire and founder of FTX, one of the largest cryptocurrency trading platforms. Lewis is a prominent American author known for engaging and accessible nonfiction books about finance, economics, and sports, which make complex subjects entertaining and informative for non-specialist readers. In Going Infinite, a narrative that weaves biography with finance, Lewis delves into Sam’s journey, chronicling Sam as he builds his empire and navigates the volatile world of cryptocurrency trading. Sam’s upbringing, psychological makeup, and penchant for quantitative pursuits delve into the theme of Games, Puzzles, and Probability as Shapers of Worldview. Sam’s philanthropy and belief in effective altruism reflect the book’s interest in Money as a Moral Tool. Lewis also compares the unruly world of cryptocurrency to that of traditional financial institutions, exploring The Role of Trust in Finance.
This book refers to the 2023 W. W. Norton edition.
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In the preface to the book, Lewis introduces Sam as an enigmatic figure, a young billionaire who is difficult to understand.
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In Chapter 1, Lewis compares Sam’s fame to Sam’s view of commitment. Sam was extremely in demand and was often sought after for interviews and speaking engagements. He constantly held meetings with celebrities and powerful people. However, he viewed all of his commitments as optional and often backed out of them at the last minute. When he did meet with people, he was distracted. Whenever he took meetings or did interviews remotely, he would play a video game in the background, multitask, and barely pay attention to the other person.
Chapter 2 describes Sam’s upbringing. Sam was raised by unconventional and intellectual parents who valued utilitarianism. As a child, Sam felt disconnected from his peers and found solace in logic puzzles and games, which shaped his worldview and laid the foundation for his future success.
Chapter 3 recounts Sam’s first forays into finance. A physics major at MIT, Sam decided to apply for internships at trading firms. He was drawn to the fast-paced and intellectually stimulating environment of financial markets, where he saw potential for his quantitative skills to thrive. His brain was perfectly suited to the games that trading firms used to evaluate potential employees. After joining Jane Street Capital, Sam was introduced to the effective altruism (EA), an idea popularized by the work of philosopher Peter Singer, which holds that individuals should use their resources to maximize their positive impact on the world. EA had a profound impact on Sam’s perspective on wealth and philanthropy.
In Chapter 5, Lewis describes how Sam left Jane Street to start a crypto trading firm, Alameda Research, in 2017. A fellow Jane Street trader, Caroline Ellison, joined the team and eventually began a secret relationship with Sam. Sam had a chaotic management style and many employees were dissatisfied with his lack of communication and inconsistent decision-making. In an incident dubbed “The Schism,” about half of the employees left the company after $4 million of client money went missing. Sam then moved the company from Berkeley to Hong Kong.
Sam decided to start a crypto trading exchange, FTX. In Chapter 6, Lewis details the process of building this new exchange. Sam planned to avoid the losses that other exchanges suffered by having the platform monitor trades every second and liquidate any trades that went into the red. In 2021, Sam took a trip to the Bahamas and decided to relocate the company there.
Chapter 7 describes FTX’s disorganized nature through the narrative of two architects who were tasked with building the company’s new headquarters in the Bahamas. FTX was so disorganized that the architects were given no instructions on how to build the office. They didn’t even know how many employees the company had, or what their roles were. In fact, the company psychiatrist—who was originally Sam’s personal therapist—was the only person to compile an org chart for the company.
In Chapter 8, Lewis describes how Sam used funds, mostly from Alameda Research, to contribute to what Sam saw as EA causes. Sam invested in hundreds of ventures. He also used money to influence politics, spending on pandemic prevention as well as defeating Trump and pro-Trump candidates. Then in 2022, the crypto market suffered a collapse.
Chapter 9 describes the downfall of FTX. After rumors spread about the company’s solvency, FTX was unable to meet the overwhelming demand for withdrawals. Company leaders attempted to rapidly raise $7 billion to make up for the gap in funds but failed. Most employees fled the Bahamas.
In Chapter 10, Lewis claims that about $6 billion of investor money was missing from FTX. While Sam could not explain why most of the money was missing, documents revealed that billions of customer funds had found their way into Sam’s personal trading fund. The Bahamian police arrested Sam.
Chapter 11 describes how John Ray, the CEO who succeeded Sam once FTX declared bankruptcy, tried to piece together where the missing money had gone. Over time, Ray recovered several billion dollars. Meanwhile, Caroline as well as two other key employees pled guilty to financial crimes, while Sam maintained his innocence and insisted on going to trial.
After Lewis published the book, Bankman-Fried was tried and convicted on seven counts, including wire fraud, securities fraud, and money laundering conspiracy.
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