It was fascinating drama when accused crypto-fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried took the stand in his trial this past week, but it also provided some pretty useful reminders about investing, decision-making and human behavior in general.
After spending years intentionally crafting the illusion of an eccentric genius and hands-on business mogul, the 31-year-old Bankman-Fried spent his first day of testimony describing how he relied on others to make the critical decisions about risk management and investor protections. Under cross examination the next two days, the boy wonder responded to most questions with a variation of “I don’t remember.”
Bankman-Fried is the only witness testifying in his defense. He has offered no evidence that he wasn’t responsible for the loss of $8 billion of customer funds, including directing more than $8 billion to his own hedge fund, paying $2.2 billion to insiders and company executives and spending more than $100 million in political contributions.
I’m not going out on much of a limb here to predict Bankman-Fried is convicted on at least some of the 12 counts with which he is charged.
One massive mistake many individual investors made was to copy the investments made by some of the country’s largest venture capital firms. “If someone as smart as Sequioa Capital invests $150 million in FTX, that’s good enough for me.”
Mimicking so-called smart money without understanding your investment is a dangerous investment strategy. Investing without doing your own homework is like relying on someone else’s for a test you don’t understand. You never know if their opinion of the investment changes or the size of their commitment.
While Sequoia lost its entire $150 million FTX investment, the firm manages $85 billion. That’s the equivalent of losing less than $200 of your $100,000 IRA. Yet records show that thousands of individuals essentially lost their life savings in FTX – an investment they almost certainly didn’t understand.
The Bankman-Fried business was actually 100 affiliated and interrelated companies with significant conflicts of interest. When something is overly complex for no apparent reason, there is usually a very important and intentional, if unapparent, reason. Needless complexity aids in hiding things.
I am a massive supporter of independent thinking and a willingness to be different, but if the CEO of a purported $32 billion company shows up to business meetings and media appearances with uncombed hair and wearing baggy cargo shorts, I would question either that person’s seriousness or sanity. The future of the world’s currencies is almost certainly not going to be revolutionized by a 30-year-old guy who looks like an almost adult version of a character from Saved by the Bell.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.