Billionaire Crypto CEO Explains DeFi Farming… Sounds Exactly Like a Ponzi Scheme

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Sam Bankman-Fried (nicknamed “SBF”) used the “sell shovels during the Gold Rush” model on cryptocurrency and has made billions as the CEO of FTX, a crypto derivatives exchange. He has a background in quantitative trading and performed a now-famous arbitrage of the different selling prices of Bitcoin between Japan and the US when the market was inefficient, buying millions of dollars worth every day where it was cheaper and selling it where it was slightly more expensive.

I’m also a Matt Levine Money Stuff fan, and so I listened to this Bloomberg Odd Lots podcast with Matt Levine and Sam Bankman-Fried with great interest. If you don’t want to listen, definitely read this partial transcript. The whole thing was very educational, like one of those casino documentaries showing you how things really work. Here’s an even shorter excerpt:

Matt Levine: (21:17)
Can you give me an intuitive understanding of farming? I mean, like to me, farming is like you sell some structured puts and collect premium, but perhaps there’s a more sophisticated understanding than that.

Sam Bankman-Fried: (21:28)
Let me give you sort of like a really toy model of it, which I actually think has a surprising amount of legitimacy for what farming could mean. You know, where do you start? You start with a company that builds a box and in practice this box, they probably dress it up to look like a life-changing, you know, world-altering protocol that’s gonna replace all the big banks in 38 days or whatever. Maybe for now actually ignore what it does or pretend it does literally nothing. It’s just a box. So what this protocol is, it’s called ‘Protocol X,’ it’s a box, and you take a token. You can take ethereum, you can put it in the box and you take it out of the box. Alright so, you put it into the box and you get like, you know, an IOU for having put it in the box and then you can redeem that IOU back out for the token.

So far what we’ve described is the world’s dumbest ETF or ADR or something like that. It doesn’t do anything but let you put things in it if you so choose. And then this protocol issues a token, we’ll call it whatever, ‘X token.’ And X token promises that anything cool that happens because of this box is going to ultimately be usable by, you know, governance vote of holders of the X tokens. They can vote on what to do with any proceeds or other cool things that happen from this box. And of course, so far, we haven’t exactly given a compelling reason for why there ever would be any proceeds from this box, but I don’t know, you know, maybe there will be, so that’s sort of where you start.

And then you say, alright, well, you’ve got this box and you’ve got X token and the box protocol declares, or maybe votes by on-chain governance, or, you know, something like that, that what they’re gonna do is they are going to take half of all the X tokens that were re-minted. Maybe two thirds will, two thirds will offer X tokens, and they’re going to give them away for free to whoever uses the box. So anyone who goes, takes some money, puts in the box, each day they’re gonna airdrop, you know, 1% of the X token pro rata amongst everyone who’s put money in the box. That’s for now, what X token does, it gets given away to the box people. …

So, you know, X tokens [are] being given out each day, all these like sophisticated firms are like, huh, that’s interesting. Like if the total amount of money in the box is a hundred million dollars, then it’s going to yield $16 million this year in X tokens being given out for it. That’s a 16% return. That’s pretty good. We’ll put a little bit more in, right? And maybe that happens until there are $200 million in the box. So, you know, sophisticated traders and/or people on Crypto Twitter, or other sort of similar parties, go and put $200 million in the box collectively and they start getting these X tokens for it.

And now all of a sudden everyone’s like, wow, people just decide to put $200 million in the box. This is a pretty cool box, right? Like this is a valuable box as demonstrated by all the money that people have apparently decided should be in the box. And who are we to say that they’re wrong about that? Like, you know, this is, I mean boxes can be great. Look, I love boxes as much as the next guy. And so what happens now? All of a sudden people are kind of recalibrating like, well, $20 million, that’s it? Like that market cap for this box? And it’s been like 48 hours and it already is $200 million, including from like sophisticated players in it. They’re like, come on, that’s too low. And they look at these ratios, TVL, total value locked in the box, you know, as a ratio to market cap of the box’s token.

And they’re like ‘10X that’s insane. 1X is the norm.’ And so then, you know, X token price goes way up. And now it’s $130 million market cap token because of, you know, the bullishness of people’s usage of the box. And now all of a sudden of course, the smart money’s like, oh, wow, this thing’s now yielding like 60% a year in X tokens. Of course I’ll take my 60% yield, right? So they go and pour another $300 million in the box and you get a psych and then it goes to infinity. And then everyone makes money.

Matt: (27:13)
I think of myself as like a fairly cynical person. And that was so much more cynical than how I would’ve described farming. You’re just like, well, I’m in the Ponzi business and it’s pretty good.

So many words, but the bottom line is… people pay more for the “cool box” because other people paid more for the box, which makes other people pay more for the box… Really? You are one of the smartest people in this space, and that the best explanation you can give me?

There’s more in the podcast, and SBF actually came off as knowledgable, reasonable, and practical. He was almost a little too honest about things, and as a result laid bare the reality of how little actually backs most of these schemes. Read between the lines, and you start to see the tricks and manipulations. Bitcoin might be limited to a finite amount, but most of these other random coins and tokens can be created in a day and are thus unlimited. If you get in really early and get out early enough in a Ponzi scheme, you can make money without hard work. But many people are collectively losing billions on these “cool boxes”, often the same people who put a lot of their hard-earned income into lottery tickets. Meanwhile, the shovel-sellers keep getting richer.

Sometimes the best idea is to simply avoid an risky area that will eventually implode. Focus your energy somewhere where your consistent work can grow a competitive advantage over time.

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Comments

  1. The only difference between it and a Ponzi Scheme is that the principals are telling you it’s a Ponzi Scheme and people are STILL jumping into them. Everyone thinks they’re going to quit the game before the music stops but very few individuals who are disciplined enough to do that would ever enter this in the first place. We’ll see what happens eventually but I will do so from the sidelines! 🙂

  2. Reading the way Fried talks is akin to the way a 17 year old girl talks. “Like” “I mean” “like” “I mean” “l mean” “I mean”. What he says makes sense but it’s hard to take him seriously.

  3. losingtrader says

    You people just don’t understand how crypto …umm..works!!

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