Despite the centrality of hard figures and statical proofs in the financial world, Going Infinite exposes the market’s inexhaustible credulity and willingness to suspend judgment when it comes to financial innovation. The book’s author, Michael Lewis, is not immune to the same fault. Presenting a deeply sympathetic portrait of the crypto-mastermind, Lewis possesses an almost fatherly mix of sympathy, admiration and responsibility for Sam Bankman-Fried.
Michael Lewis’s way into Bankman-Fried’s extraordinary rise and fall begins with his wrinkled clothes, which get no fewer than seven mentions through the relatively short read. This theme of unconventional aesthetics and the metonymic image of Bankman-Fried’s messy hair is used to identify the disgraced billionaire on the cover of his book, and becomes a recurring motif for his unconventional approach to finance.
Unorthodoxy is a thread that Lewis tracks constantly through Bankman-Fried’s life and appearance. It is seen through the description of Bankman-Fried’s childhood in which neither birthdays nor religious holidays were celebrated through to his early career on the chaotic Jane Street trading floor and finally to FTX, a company that defied traditional approaches to management and law, defrauding over a million customers.
As the author of The Big Short, and a former banker himself, Lewis is not naïve to the myopic greed that can drive financial markets. Yet in Going Infinite, the idealism and confusion that surrounds the emerging fields of cryptocurrency and quantitative trading revitalises this danger with a modern touch. With investors eager to cash in on a booming market they do not understand, Bankman-Fried’s unique mix of arrogance and eccentricity bestowed him with an air of mystery and competency few could match when it came to crypto-trading.
Besides, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Bankman-Fried’s own hobbies and choice of profession. Notoriously a prolific gamer, the skills Bankman-Fried cultivated when playing real-time-strategy games uniquely qualified him for a career in the intensely gamified world of cryptocurrency when compared with other career investors.
Translating assets into tokens and real-world currency into coins, the day-to-day world of a crypto trader sounds a lot closer to a game of StarCraft than traditional finance. Seemingly detaching currency value from real world consequences, this intense gamification of finance almost encourages the highest risk/return trades in search of a high score.
Bankman-Fried’s time at Jane Street exemplifies this as he recounts how the company tests candidates with questions not on finance but on poker chips and pits interns against each other in a culture of social betting. Yet by gamifying every financial transaction in this way, the firm’s competitive environment and Bankman-Fried’s own intellectual brutality quickly demonstrate the danger of this philosophy. This section of the book climaxes in an unpleasant vignette in which Bankman-Fried purposefully uses the friendly betting system to humiliate another intern, much to the discomfort of his peers.
Exploring the often-bizarre world of Bankman-Fried and his trading empire, Lewis’ focus often lies on the strange interpersonal relations that underpinned FTX and Alameda Research. Bankman-Fried and his employee/ on and off girlfriend, Caroline Ellison, become a particular point of focus in the book as their romance is anything but ordinary. Conducting relationship negotiations through formal memos and applying cost-benefit analysis techniques onto their dating life it is apparent that no figure in FTX’s inner circle is normal or well balanced.
The interweaving of business and romantic endeavours in this fashion goes to show Bankman-Fried’s inability to operate FTX as anything other than a social organisation. Refusing to provide any real job roles for his employees or hiring based on qualifications, the entirety of the FTX and Almeda Research comes off closer to a loose amalgamation of college buddies than any serious multibillion dollar exchange in the book. Unsurprisingly, this lackadaisical approach also leads to the company’s downfall, a complex series of events influenced by a crypto crash but equally aided by Bankman-Fried’s laissez-faire approach to business organisation and law.
In any other era, it is questionable whether a person like Bankman-Fried would have risen to the financial heights he did. Fraudsters like Ponzi and Madoff had been known for their charisma and charm, two traits that Bankman-Fried evidently did not possess. Yet through his eccentric persona, unexpected ethical drive, and knowledge of an unfamiliar market, Bankman-Fried charmed investors and came to dominate the world of crypto-currency. In this cautionary tale, a valuable lesson about the nature of communication and public relations can be learnt: snake oil can come in a variety of bottles. Leveraging a bizarre public image in an equally bizarre cultural and financial era, Bankman-Fried was the right person at the right time to help burst the crypto bubble. Of course, this is not done by one man alone. Stories such as this date back to the South Sea Company and before as naïve investors have always helped drive the final nails into their own coffins.
Lewis’ book successfully captures the crypto zeitgeist in a digestible format. The work neatly transforms over 100 meetings with Bankman-Fried into a clear narrative all the way from his childhood through to his financial ruin. Yet in presenting the story in such a readable way I am forced to question its accuracy. Relying on Bankman-Fried’s word alone there never seems to be a moment of uncertainty or incredulity in Lewis’ retelling. This raises some alarm bells when compared with other documentations of FTX’s rise and fall. Lewis, for instance, makes no mention of Bankman-Fried’s infamous ‘fuck regulators’ line or Ellison’s claim that his appearance was actually part of a carefully crafted image to entice investors. Even if he was only made aware of these claims post-trial, the absence of any real presentations of FTX’s culture of overt disregard for the law in its heyday still seems odd.
Perhaps most damming of all is Lewis tactful avoidance of any mention of autism, a stylistic choice that I am unsure whether to be empowering or disingenuous. Despite the fact that Going Infinite frequently depicts Bankman-Fried’s obvious neuro-diverse tendencies both as strength and a weakness, its literal omission invites questions about Lewis’ narrative desires and the sincerity of his documentation.
Lewis has been vocal in his desire to tell you the story as he sees it but it feels as though his commitment to impartiality swerves almost into a moral defence as he refuses to condemn anything or tell everything.
Painting a sympathetic image of a misunderstood genius, Going Infinite is an easy and enjoyable read for anyone who wishes to learn about the fall of FTX and the bizarre world of cryptocurrency. In this endeavour Lewis’ delivery is concise and readable, but in the spirit of Mark Twain, he never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.