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Rohit Krishnan is a former hedge fund manager. Both he and Noah Smith are now mainly-economics commentators, and have been good guides to the FTX crash on Twitter.

I found this short piece very helpful in getting a sense of how big the screw-up was by the investors in FTX.

It opens like this:

We live in the golden age of technology fraud. When Theranos exploded, there was much hemming and hawing amongst the investing circles, mostly to note that the smart money on Sand Hill Road were not amongst those who lost their shirts. When WeWork put out its absolute sham of an IPO prospectus before getting cut by 80%, most folks said hey, it’s only the vision fund that was lacking vision. 

But now there’s a third head on that mountain, and it’s the biggest. Theranos only burned $700 million of investors' money. Neumann at WeWork supposedly burned around $4 Billion, but that was mostly from Softbank. FTX puts these to shame, incinerating at least $2 Billion of investors' money and another $6-8 Billion of customers’ money in mere hours. Soon to be legendary, worse than Enron and faster than Lehman, there is the singular fraud of FTX and its CEO Sam Bankman-Fried.

[...]

But unlike those other crashes, this seems like it might take down multiple other firms, and create a 2008 moment for crypto, which used to be a $2 Trillion asset class. More importantly, to figure out how we can stop something like this from happening. Not fraud, since that’s part of the human OS, but at least having the smartest money around the table getting bamboozled by tousled hair and cargo shorts.

 

The part that I found the most illuminating was this section on 'Dumb Enron' and some of the specific mistakes made by big investors like Temasek and Sequoia.

 

I. The problem: this is Dumb Enron

Temasek, not known to be a gunslinger in the venture world, released a statement after they lost $275 million with FTX. It’s carefully written and well worded, and is rather circumspect about what actually went wrong.

They mention how their exposure was tiny (0.09% of AUM) and that they did extensive due diligence which took approximately 8 months, audited financial statements, and undertook regulatory risk assessments.

But the most interesting part is here:

As we only had a ~1% stake in FTX, we did not have a board seat. However, we take corporate governance seriously, engage the boards and management of our investee companies regularly and hold them accountable for the activities of their companies.

Sequoia, when it lost $214 million across a couple of funds, also mentioned in their letter to LPs they did “extensive research and thorough due diligence”. A week later they apologized to the LPs on a call and said they'll do better, by maybe using the Big 4 to audit all startups. I suspect this is hyperbole because otherwise this is medicine sillier than the disease.

These are not isolated errors in judgement though. The list of investors in FTX is a who’s who of the investing world - Sequoia, Paradigm, Thoma Bravo, Multicoin, Softbank, Temasek, Lux, Insight, Tiger Global.

[...] 

Doug Leone made the reasonable point that I made above, that VCs don’t really do forensic accounting. They got some audited financials, and it looked good, but it's a snapshot at the end of a quarter, so why would they know shenanigans had taken place!

But honestly, if VCs had been snookered by Theranos, that would make more sense. Like what do VCs know about how much blood is needed to test something? Sure it doesn’t quite sound right (100s of tests from a single drop of blood!) and there were people saying this is impossible, but they say that kind of thing about everything! And Holmes’ professor from Stanford was on the Board! That would’ve been a good reason to lose money, and Sequoia’s letter would be 100% on point.

But an exchange? That’s not an unknown business model. Frankfurt exchange has been running for over 4 centuries. We know how this works. We know how brokerage works. When Matt Levine writes about how this is insane, he doesn’t need to, like, study up on esoteric secrets of cryptography. Whether you’re trading baseball cards or stocks or currencies or crypto, a margin loan is a margin loan and a fee is a fee.

What they should have known however are the basic red flags - does this $25 Billion company, going on a trillion by all accounts, have an actual accountant? Is there an actual management team in place? Do they have, like, a back office? Do they know how many employees they have? Do they engage professional services like lawyers to figure out how to construct the corporate structure maze? Do they routinely lend hundreds of millions of dollars to the CEO? 

Sure Temasek didn’t get a Board seat, but did they know there was no Board at all? Or how exactly Alameda and FTX were intertwined, if not all the other 130 entities? It seems sensible to ask these things, even if you’re only risking 0.09% of your capital.

These are hardly deep detailed insane questions you skip in order to close the deal faster. Speaking as someone who’s lost deals because of that kind of silliness, this is a whole another level. I’ve had investments where we ask the company to get an audit done as part of the round requirements, and that’s at 1/10th the size! The answer to most of these combined will take like half an hour max. 

This isn’t Enron, where you had extremely smart folk hide beautifully constructed fictions in their publicly released financial statements. This is Dumb Enron, where someone “trust me bro”-ed their way to a $32 Billion valuation. 

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Post summary (feel free to suggest edits!):
Linkpost to an article by Rohit Krishnan, a former hedge fund manager. Haydn highlights key excerpts, including one claiming that “This isn’t Enron, where you had extremely smart folk hide beautifully constructed fictions in their publicly released financial statements. This is Dumb Enron, where someone “trust me bro”-ed their way to a $32 Billion valuation.”

They mention that “the list of investors in FTX [was] a who’s who of the investing world” and while “VCs don’t really do forensic accounting” there were still plenty of red flags they should have checked. Eg. basics like if FTX had an accountant, management team, back office, board, lent money to the CEO, or how intertwined FTX and Alameda were. The author has had investments 1/10th the size of what some major investors had in FTX, and still required a company audit, with most of these questions taking “half an hour max”.

(If you'd like to see more summaries of top EA and LW forum posts, check out the Weekly Summaries series.)

As an early stage VC, checklists we and others use typically cover all the basics such as: who is on the board, what requires board consent, what is the past history of investor updates, what conflicts of interest exist and mechanisms to resolve them etc 

All things that should have, if press reports are accurate, provided ample red flags prior to an investment, even before getting into forensic accounting etc.

Fear of missing out on a competitive round can drive normally savvy investors to skip or discount results of the normal dd process.

Your work and background seems valuable and impressive, and is far superior to me in VC. I would like to learn more from you.

As a comments on your statements taken in isolation:

what requires board consent, what is the past history of investor updates, what conflicts of interest exist and mechanisms to resolve them etc

It is surprising if an early-VC looked at things like board, board consent. I expect the main thing they would look at is team. 

Certainly in tech, boards are usually not respected, even in later larger companies, much less a small early stage project. Are you conflating board and board control, with founder/lead team dynamics?

All things that should have, if press reports are accurate, provided ample red flags prior to an investment, even before getting into forensic accounting etc.

In my opinion, most projects would bomb this, including Apple, Facebook, etc. (modulo the claimed romantic/sexual relationships, and even then that's not clear).

Fear of missing out on a competitive round can drive normally savvy investors to skip or discount results of the normal dd process.

I understand the most negative narratives of the VC investment in FTX ("I LOVE THIS FOUNDER"). 

At the same time, it's not clear it's ex ante terrible. It was clear what they were investing in, and that was almost no control or visibility into the organization. 

Most elite/top/successful founding teams want exactly the arrangement SBF achieved, because VC control or influence is seen as (strongly) net negative. If this is true, this cannot be a signal or red flag.

I do agree in this post as the likes of Theranos, WeWork and Now FTX is like a pattern of some sorts. It's like we as a society is unable to have multiple people thinking effectively in the world of money that is why utopian visions easily sweeps the wide swats of the business landscape..

A similar pattern in some sense is how bad ideas in former USSR and Germany where either communism or nazism got easily inserted to the larger community through lies.

Human OS is seemingly ill equipped when promises of a better future is narrated by highly ambitious, but fraudulent individuals. Only few can really see through the future or discover the gaps that will lead to horror.