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Michael Lewis Likens Critics of His New Book on Sam Bankman-Fried to a ‘Mob’

17 minute read

When the journalist Michael Lewis announced in May that he was writing a book on Sam Bankman-Fried after spending months with the FTX crypto mogul in the Bahamas, it was anticipated to be the definitive account of an era-defining financial collapse. Lewis has a long history of deftly chronicling moments of social and economic sea change, from Liar’s Poker to Moneyball to The Big Short. And Lewis had astonishing access to his subject: he told the New York Times that at some points, he saw Bankman-Fried more than the FTX founder’s parents did. 

The book, Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, was released on Oct. 3, the same day as the criminal trial against Bankman-Fried began in federal Manhattan court. Bankman-Fried is accused of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, among other counts.

But so far, reviews of Lewis’s book have not been kind. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times each contended that Lewis had gotten too close to his subject, with the LA Times’s columnist Michael Hiltzik suggesting that journalism schools should use the book as a lesson on the “imperative need to approach a subject with a healthy helping of skepticism…in this book Lewis doesn’t exercise any.” 

I was particularly interested to speak with Lewis, as I am working on my own book about Bankman-Fried and the epic rise and fall of the crypto world that unfolded over the pandemic. So, after witnessing the first day of Bankman-Fried’s trial, I walked over to a downtown Manhattan hotel to interview Lewis about the book and his research. In our interview, Lewis brushed off criticism and addressed specific concerns about the book. “This is what happens when you address a mob,” he said.

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(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

TIME: During jury selection for the Bankman-Fried trial on Oct. 3, Judge Lewis Kaplan mentioned your interview on 60 Minutes, in which you contend that you do not believe Bankman-Fried knowingly stole customers' money. Several prospective jurors indicated they had seen the special. Do you hope that the jury reads your book [although they are forbidden from doing so]?

Lewis: I’d love for the jury to read the book. Mark Cohen [Sam Bankman-Fried’s lawyer] said this to me: “You get up, you tell one story, and they tell the other story, and the question is which story the jury believes.” I’m in a privileged position to tell a fuller story, without leaving out any of the nasty details. If I were a juror, I would rather hear my story than either defense or prosecution.

I'm just going to tell you the story as I see it, and then leave you the discretion that then you lynch him, acquit him, or don't know what to think of him. I don't want the jury thinking I left anything else they needed to know.

There's something about Sam and the situation that pushes a lot of people's buttons and causes them to want to judge quickly. If I had five hours with the prosecutors, one of the things I would love to know is why they moved so fast. Sam’s lawyers had a guy on the inside and outside advising on when he might be extradited from the Bahamas. And no way did they think it was gonna happen as fast as it did, because they thought it would take the government much longer to figure out what the hell happened. 

I thought that was of a piece with the general social response: how quick people wanted to judge. So I thought, I'm going to be dealing with a reader who is going to be in that judgy kind of mood. 

But Judge Kaplan explicitly advised prospective jurors the opposite of your advice. “You are to look at no newspapers, listen to no press accounts, do no internet research,” he said.

It’s a funny thing about the American criminal justice system, that they like people not to know very much. Historically, it wasn't always that way. There was once a sense that you should have a judgment by your peers who were kind of knowledgeable about the context and the situation. 

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Are you going to be covering the trial?

It bothers me a lot that I can’t be there. I don’t get liberated from my book tour until, honestly, Oct. 26. I haven't seen the whole witness list. But I've been able to ask questions and people who have seen it. And it kind of looks like the government's case maps pretty neatly onto the book. I know that four or five of the main characters in the book, apart from Sam, Nishad [Singh], Caroline [Ellison] and Gary [Wang] are called as prosecution witnesses. 

Going Infinite contains excerpts from Sam Bankman-Fried’s personal writings, including him confessing to not being able to feel pleasure. How did you gain his trust enough to get him to fork over these intensely personal writings?

I’ll tell you something strange about him, as a character. When I find someone I might write about, and that person is really insistent on knowing what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, I pretty quickly lose interest. So most of my characters kind of leave me to write what I want to write. 

Never ever has anyone left me be to the extent that Sam did. He never exhibited the faintest interest in why I was interested or what I was interested in. I obviously never showed him anything. 

But it probably was a benefit to me, in his eyes, that I had seen and interviewed everybody before it went bad. So I had some context and some sense of how everybody had behaved. And so he didn't really have better options.

I want to ask about some details that appeared in various charging documents and complaints against Sam but are featured less prominently or not at all in your book. One is that Bankman-Fried allegedly bribed Chinese officials to release money from a frozen Alameda account.

I know too much about that, and it seemed like a distraction. This is what happened, to my knowledge—and I know this from the people in Hong Kong who orchestrated it—a Chinese exchange was routinely targeted by local Chinese police departments. They would find a pretext for freezing an account. In this case, they froze Alameda’s account. And Alameda had like a billion dollars in this account. 

There was an operation inside of FTX, or Alameda, whatever, in Hong Kong, to legitimately get the money back without having to go pay the ransom. And they pursued that, and it didn't work. So they went in and paid ransom to the Chinese police department directly to get the money released, and it was released. 

I actually would have loved to include it. But they weren’t running around bribing people to change laws. It was more telling about how the Chinese government works than anything about Sam. I then came back and confirmed it all with Sam. He said he knew he'd sent someone in to get the money out, but he wasn't completely sure how he'd gotten the money out. 

What about the allegation that Bankman-Fried deliberately created a fake company called North Dimension, "which had no employees or business operations" according to a February indictment, and then lied about its purposes in order to open a U.S. bank account?

So the problem in the beginning is FTX can’t get bank accounts because everybody's nervous about crypto. Alameda had accounts, and some of the money [to FTX] goes directly through Alameda. I have wire receipts where people actually sent money to Alameda directly. 

My impression was that the bank wasn't actually misled about who these people were. That it was a kind of fig leaf thing. They were open about it: It wasn’t sneaky. They thought it was fun, because then it had to open accounts inside of Alameda, or connected to Alameda, because the banks simply wouldn't accept the name FTX. 

So that wasn’t the scandalous bit. The scandalous bit is that they kept the money in Alameda. No one would care about any of that if the money went to the right place; we wouldn’t be here. 

But it’s still illegal to mislead a bank about the purpose of a bank account.

But nobody would have cared about it. I mean, yes: it's in the book that they open accounts for FTX pretending to be Alameda. Yeah. So I didn't think I was hiding that. 

You don’t mention the infamous Vox interview, in which Bankman-Fried says “f-ck regulators” and seemed to admit that his caring about ethics was at least partially an act.

First, I was there, so that was weird. He was zonked out. But if you think he wasn’t an Effective Altruist, or that he didn’t care about that, you’re out of your mind. His whole life was wrapped up in that. I sat through endless meetings with these people; endless discussions with his Effective Altruist colleagues. 

The exact quote is that when he was asked about his frequent discussions about ethics, he responded: “It’s what reputations are made of, to some extent…this dumb game we woke Westerners play where we say all say the right shibboleths and so everyone likes.”

I think that’s true of him. This is implicit in his idea of, “Who cares about intent? It’s all about outcome and results.” You’d have to be a bozo of a reader not to see that this guy is playing games with people and manipulating them.  

But that was a weird moment because I didn't actually feel, actually having been there, that he was actually himself. I didn't feel like, ‘That was true Sam, and every other time you see Sam, he’s false Sam.’ It was an aberration. Except that I do think that the thing he said about conventional ethics being silly: that’s very Sam. 

Late in the book, you talk about trying to find where the lost billions of FTX customer deposits, before concluding that most of it wasn’t actually lost in the first place: “Where did all that money go? The answer? Nowhere. It was still there.” Can you explain this to me?

If we are now at $8.6 billion in customer deposits lost, Mr. John Ray [who was brought in as FTX CEO after its collapse] has actually collected, as he claims, $7.3 billion of liquid assets. And he has not sold a lot of the VC [venture capital] portfolios. I’ve interviewed a couple traders who actually think they might get 100 cents on the dollar. I think this is a really interesting thing that has not gotten enough attention: how much of the money is still there. 

I asked a woman who’d been a prosecutor who is now a defense attorney: What if they find all the money? Like, what if it turns out that creditors get 100 cents back on the dollar, and there are no victims? 

And she said: ‘It doesn't matter. As a legal matter, he will be treated as if he lost the money that they thought he lost when they charged him.’ And I don’t really understand that. It does seem to me that there is a difference between having moved the money into the wrong place and it’s still there in some form, versus having moved the money into an account into Uzbekistan, and you’re hiding it. 

Clearly, they should not have had customer money in Alameda. That’s insane. They clearly should have subjected Alameda to the risk engine. That’s insane. But there is a question of the role of this catastrophic sloppiness that seems to follow Sam Bankman-Fried wherever he goes. 

But the company’s insolvency isn’t on trial. FTX terms of service say that FTX customer deposits should stay customer deposits. And Bankman-Fried even told the U.S. Senate that “as a general principle FTX segregates customer assets from its own assets across our platforms.”

It’s bad. I agree. These people didn’t make any distinction between money in Alameda and money in FTX. It’s all in one pot, from their point of view. That should not have been. 

So when you’re trying to analyze how much is missing and where did it go: I couldn’t get an answer. I thought they lost it in huge trades. But I'd interview so many rank-and-file Alameda traders and none of them thought that was plausible. For example, Luna Terra [Terra Luna]. They actually were the right way on that and they made a bunch of money.

Did you see evidence that they made money during the Terra Luna crash? Caroline Ellison said the opposite in court: that after that crash, lenders recalled loans, which led Alameda to borrow billions of dollars of FTX customer funds.

No one shows me receipts. But no one suggested otherwise. I interviewed 10 people in Alameda. They just weren't lying. None of them could think of a big loss.

One thing that might come out of the trial is Caroline saying in June: “We had this trade on that nobody knew, and we lost eight billion dollars—and Sam said, we’ll cover it with deposits.” That could happen. 

But I was kind of there through it. And there was no detectable change in Caroline, Nishad, Sam: their interactions or their demeanors. If they had this sharp, swift loss, they were really, really good with their poker faces. 

Many articles have been written accusing Sam Bankman-Fried of lying repeatedly. Do you believe Sam is a serial liar?

I think he’s a serial withholder. Unless I asked exactly the right question, I did not get the full picture. Talking to him was like trying to play a game of Battleship. If you guessed A4 and the battleship was on A4, he would say, ‘yes.’ But if you guessed A5, he wouldn’t tell you.

Of the many hours you spent with Sam, how much occurred while he was on house arrest?

One-third, maybe. A lot of people had access: he was talking to every journalist he could get on the phone. But when they first put him under house arrest, an hour from my home, where he couldn't really evade me, they did me a huge service.

Why is that period barely written about in the book?

It's funny, because it wasn’t just that: also during the collapse in the Bahamas, I wrote these little journals while I was there. But a lot of that is on the cutting room floor. 

I conceived of this book of this person colliding with various systems, institutions: finance, Wall Street, crypto, political processes. And I added to it the bankruptcy system. 

When I got to the justice system, which is the last system he's collided with, I thought, this material belongs in a sequel, rather than in this book. This book ends with a collapse of his business and reputation and all that. So the subsequent thing feels like a separate story. 

But when I think about what the material is from him on house arrest, much of what we were talking about had nothing to do with the current moment. I was trying to revisit stuff. And there wasn't much going on. It was him with an ankle bracelet and a German Shepherd. 

You start the book by acknowledging that a friend introduced you to Sam and had asked you to vet him. Was that friend Brad Katsuyama [the protagonist of Lewis’s book Flash Boys]?


How much of a role did you play in their subsequent business partnership?

Zero. I was out of it. 

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Some critics of yours have pointed to a possible conflict of interest: that the heroic protagonist of your last book connected you to the subject of your new one, right before their companies joined forces to lobby the SEC for regulatory approval.

Well, they were aligned. What appealed to Brad in the first place about Sam was that he had this structure that could change the structure of the U.S. markets. It does make a lot of sense. I’m not sure if it makes a lot of sense for an exchange to house the money. But it does make sense to not have the business model be selling customer data to other customers. 

Patrick Hillman, Binance’s former chief strategy officer, wrote a scathing Tweet thread about your book, saying you didn’t make a serious effort to talk to Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, who is portrayed as Bankman-Fried’s enemy.

They called me and asked, would I like to talk to CZ? I said, absolutely. CZ had a history of dicking reporters around when they got to Dubai [where Zhao was often based]. So I wanted to make sure I was talking to CZ. And then they came back and said, not CZ: You get to talk to our PR team.’

And I said, ‘I actually don’t want to talk to your PR team. I want to talk to CZ.’ I reached out to them six months later and said, ‘I’m going to give it one more shot: I’d love to talk to CZ.’ And they didn’t even reply. I would have loved to have talked to him. 

You’ve received waves of criticism on Twitter from people who accuse you of being too sympathetic to Sam. How do you feel about all the vitriol you’re receiving?

This is what happens when you address a mob, is what it feels like. I don’t think the mob is the only voice here that matters. I’m not his defense lawyer. There’s plenty in the book that I’m sure he would not like to be in the book. It happens to arise out of actually spending an awful lot of time investigating the situation itself. 

The anger seems, to me, to be like a separate force and part of American life right now, rather than something that's rational and tied to actual agreements. Lord knows the very easy, lazy thing to do right now would be to throw Sam under every bus you could, and try to make him seem as bad as possible, because people respond to that. But it just wouldn't be true. It's not the character I knew. It's not the situation I knew. 

There’s a long history of people getting in trouble for books that are right, and the books end up being extremely valuable. I've had this a couple of times in my career. This reminds me, oddly, of when Moneyball came out. There was such fury. The scouts were really upset, their jobs were threatened and their friends wrote for the local newspapers. I couldn't turn on the television set for a year. 

In other words, there was a tribe waiting to be that was natively hostile to the ideas that were in the book. And in this case, again, it felt like there's a tribe waiting that were natively hostile to the truth of the story I experienced. All you can do is write it; I can't make stuff up to make you happy.

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