In “Going Infinite,” Michael Lewis Chronicles Bankman-Fried’s Fall

from wunderkind to convict, Lewis had a front row seat 

December 13, 2023 | Denise Gifford

copy of cover of the book Going InfiniteIf you’ve followed the case of Sam Bankman-Fried, recently convicted for his role in what prosecutors say was one of the biggest financial frauds in U.S. history, you likely already have thoughts about the defendant and what led him to do what he did. Was it greed, hubris, stupidity, ambition, all of these, or something else?

Trying to understand what makes someone tick is often left to psychologists, but it’s also the purview of biographers. One well-known chronicler of financial misdeeds and the personalities that commit them is Michael Lewis, who has written such popular books as “The Big Short,” “Flash Boys,” “Liars Poker,” and “Moneyball.” His newest book, “Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon,” is about Sam Bankman-Fried, and it is an entertaining, if sometimes spotty, read.

Lewis tells the story of Sam Bankman-Fried (often shortened to SBF), who founded the crypto exchange FTX and a related quantitative trading firm, Alameda Research. Both spectacularly fell apart, taking customer and investor money along with them. SBF seemed oblivious to the impact of his actions and the damage they caused. His fall from grace was particularly scandalous because SBF had been a prominent philanthropist and vocal supporter of “effective altruism,” a philosophy that advocates using evidence-based practices to maximize the reduction of suffering worldwide.

Long before everything imploded, Lewis recognized Bankman-Fried as an intriguing subject and wanted to learn more about him. He spent time with SBF and began laying the foundation for this book. What started out as a portrait of a “new tycoon” changed course as Lewis found himself witnessing the demise of FTX. But most of “Going Infinite” is centered on the time before those last days. As such, Lewis is mostly interested in how such a quirky, math-brained kid with an altruistic bent (but little empathy) created FTX. It’s the personality of SBF, and the building of FTX, that have his focus.

In his easy-to-read style, Lewis recounts how SBF was raised by two brilliant parents, both legal scholars. He was channeled into the best schools and academic opportunities, culminating with a degree from MIT. SBF always felt more comfortable talking with adults than with kids his own age, but even that was a challenge. “Although he found it easier to talk with adults than with children, the connections he made with adults were no stronger than those he made with other kids,” observes Lewis. Bankman-Fried had difficulty showing empathy, and had to teach himself how to smile, which he did by watching others and trying to imitate them.

After college, SBF landed at Jane Street Capital, a high frequency trading firm that hired quantitative minds like his to game the system and produce outsized profits. He later used those skills to found Alameda Research, a crypto trading firm, and the FTX exchange.

Lewis describes how SBF brought fellow effective altruists in to work with him. Their goal was to make enough money to do some big things. They wanted to use their money to solve the world’s greatest problems, like nuclear war, pandemics, and other existential risks to humankind. What they built was “going to be different: a vessel to save some vast number of lives.” When Lewis asked SBF how much money they would need to do all these things, SBF said they would need “infinity dollars.”

And they were good at making money and giving it away. Lewis notes that they were “on pace to hand out $300 million in 2022, and then $1 billion in 2023.” But it turns out they weren’t so good at risk management. Customer money that was supposed to be held at FTX found its way to Alameda and when the music stopped, nobody knew where a lot of it had gone.

It’s estimated that more than 1 million FTX customers lost money. Many were small retail customers who could not afford their losses and who suffered tremendously. In addition, FTX employees were hurt badly. “Most FTX employees had lost their life savings. Some had lost their spouses, their homes, their friends, and their good names,” writes Lewis.

With the sudden collapse of FTX, Lewis changes the trajectory of the book to incorporate new information, and it feels jumpy. For example, Lewis abruptly moves from his narrative about SBF to an accounting exercise about the missing money. He creates a simple balance sheet of money in and out of “Sam’s World.” He then devotes a chapter to the initiation of the bankruptcy of FTX, the lawyers, and the detective work (the “Easter egg hunt”) needed to find out where the money went. Although this information is interesting, I found myself wanting him to return to the characters in the FTX saga.

“Going Infinite” is part biography and part tutorial in finance and technology topics, and at times feels incomplete on both counts. It’s also much more about the rise of the “new tycoon” and less about the fall, leaving questions about how the main players behaved and what they were thinking as the ship went down. The book is also notably light on criticism of SBF. To be fair, had it mostly been written after FTX failed, rather than before and during, Lewis may have had more perspective, and some of the questions left hanging might have been answered.

On finishing this book, the reader is left with questions, but also with a fascinating tale of a wunderkind who got in over his head.

Our rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon                                               (paid link)

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is the managing editor of InfoWorks.com. She co-founded InfoWorks International, a consulting firm that trained thousands worldwide in project management, leadership, and related business skills. Prior to heading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.