Investor Studied Crypto For Years, Then Missed FTX’s Red Flags


(Bloomberg) — When Sam Bankman-Fried was all of 25 years old, he pitched his nascent crypto investment business to Silicon Valley investors — only for them to laugh at him and his acolytes over their lack of experience and knowledge of crypto.

“None of us has run a company before and we’d like $100 million by next Tuesday,” Bankman-Fried told David Rubenstein in August about the request. “It was not a very compelling pitch for investors.”

Fast forward five years and Bankman-Fried had become, in his own words, one of the “world’s greatest fundraisers.”

Bankman-Fried ultimately roped in some of the best-known firms in Silicon Valley to raise billions for his FTX. After its rapid collapse over the past week and a half, that feat now looks like one of the greatest failures of investment due diligence ever.

FTX’s roster of blue-chip backers included funds such as Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, a C$242.5 billion ($181 billion) fund that has poured money into private companies for decades and is known for taking an active interest in the corporate governance of companies it invests in.

Ontario Teachers put $75 million into two FTX entities in October 2021 as part of a $420 million fundraising round, alongside other major investors like Tiger Global Management and Singapore’s state-owned Temasek Holdings. Three months later, the Canadian fund made a follow-on investment of $20 million in FTX.US.

Some $300 million of that October financing went to Bankman-Fried, who sold some of his personal stake in the company, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing FTX financial records and people familiar with the transaction.

The FTX equity purchase went through a tougher-than-usual gauntlet for an investment of that size at Teachers, with multiple investment committees reviewing it, according to a person familiar with the matter. The investment was championed by Olivia Steedman, the well-regarded head of its venture capital arm, who has been at the fund for two decades.

“Prior to making an investment, our investment teams spent years tracking the digital asset space,” Dan Madge, a spokesperson for Teachers, told Bloomberg in a statement. “TVG’s thesis was that exchanges, such as FTX, could help refine our perspectives around digital assets without exposing the plan to significant, single cryptocurrency risks. TVG spent many months on diligence of FTX, in partnership with experienced external advisors, to allow us to assess the risks associated with the investment.”

Teachers is now writing off its entire $95 million investment in FTX.

Red Flags

The pension fund had earlier defended its process as “robust” in a statement on Thursday, adding that “no due diligence process can uncover all risks especially in the context of an emerging technology business.”

Still, Ontario’s process seemed to have missed red flags — including FTX’s conflicts of interest with Alameda Research and its lack of a proper board of directors.

The latter is a particularly strange miss for Teachers, an early adopter of the view that pension funds should pay close attention to the boards and governance of their investments and disclose their voting on public companies. The fund and its first CEO, Claude Lamoureux, were central to the founding of the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, an alliance of institutional investors, two decades ago.

Ontario Teachers said the FTX position accounted for less than 0.05% of the fund’s assets, “small-scale exposure to an emerging area in the financial technology sector.”

Some experts defend the approach. “We need to realize that the growth of cryptocurrencies over the past five, six, seven years has been tremendous,” Sebastien Betermier, an associate professor of finance at McGill University, said in a phone interview. “From the perspective of a long-term investor like a pension fund, it raises the question, should we invest a piece of our wealth in crypto?”

It’s the second time in three months that a major Canadian pension manager has been forced to completely write off a crypto investment it had only recently made. In August, Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec marked its $150 million stake in Celsius Network LLC to zero after the cryptocurrency lender failed.

Ontario Teachers launched its venture division in 2019 under the direction of Steedman, who previously had worked in its infrastructure and natural resources unit. Last year, the venture group, which comprises about 25 investment professionals in Toronto, London, Hong Kong and San Francisco, reported a 39% return on its portfolio. Its investments include some larger companies, such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.

“As a global, technology-driven innovator in the financial sector, FTX fits well with our mandate,” Steedman said in a press release announcing the October 2021 fundraise, which included Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Tiger Global Management. Sequoia wrote down its $214 million investment in FTX last week.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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