Diverging paths of two CEOs running FTX’s Alameda Research may meet again in court
Employee accounts of life at Sam Bankman-Fried’s flagship cryptocurrency trading arm Alameda Research paint a picture of overworked and inexperienced millennials running a ship headed for the rocks: one seemingly escaped.
When Sam Trabucco quit his post this year as co-chief executive officer at crypto brokerage Alameda Research to spend time on his boat, he left his CEO partner Caroline Ellison on a sinking ship.
Trabucco ended his three years with the firm in August, avoiding the spotlight in the subsequent bankruptcy of Alameda and its sister cryptocurrency exchange FTX. Court filings have since detailed a “complete failure of corporate controls” at the companies founded by Sam Bankman-Fried.
Trabucco, 30, announced his departure in a Twitter thread titled “On Happiness,” saying he left to spend time focusing on himself, traveling, visiting friends and family, and enjoying his newly bought boat. “I needed to relax, and I’m really, really happy,” he said in his Twitter thread.
He kept a role as an advisor to Alameda and was indulging in his hobbies of card games and crossword puzzles, he said in a September FTX podcast.
The former Alameda head – who got his start in finance as a quantitative analysis trader using mathematical models to assess risk – is a crossword constructor for the New York Times. According to the podcast, he had the eighth-highest lifetime scrabble average of all New York Times crossword constructors by 2020.
While he called his time at Alameda the most formative of his life, Trabucco said it was also “difficult and exhausting and consuming.”
He added: “I’ve learned how to think, I’ve found out how far I can push myself, and I’ve been gifted the incredible experience of being in the trenches with lifelong friends — and *winning*.”
Trabucco said in his Twitter note that he had reduced his role at Alameda over the months. “This happened gradually and has most recently involved a lot of time not really working at all — and certainly not acting as the company’s CEO,” he wrote.
He wasn’t replaced, so Stanford mathematics graduate Ellison at just 28 years old, assumed control of Alameda, its multi-billion dollar daily trades, and was at the helm for the implosion.
Forkast News sent messages over the past week to Trabucco requesting comment via Twitter and LinkedIn but did not receive a response. Emails sent to Bankman-Fried and Ellison at their Alameda addresses did not receive an answer.
Alameda Research was founded in 2017 by Bankman-Fried, 30, who would then add the FTX exchange to his expanding cryptocurrency conglomerate in 2019.
In just a couple of years, FTX added hundreds of thousands of customers to its U.S. and offshore trading platforms, becoming, by some estimates, the world’s third-largest crypto exchange by volume.
Alameda established itself as FTX’s main market maker, with Trabucco and Ellison named co-CEOs in 2021. Under their supervision, the firm was brokering cryptocurrency trades worth several billion dollars daily and investing in other crypto platforms, according to the company.
The common denominator of the Bankman-Fried empire is now bankruptcy, with court filings containing allegations of mismanagement, corporate malfeasance, and potential fraud – all charges that may well be leveled at the executives that ran them.
U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote to the U.S. Justice Department on Nov. 23, citing “deep concern over the disturbing allegations of fraud and illicit behavior that led to the collapse of cryptocurrency firm FTX Trading Ltd.” It went on to urge the Department of Justice “to hold the company’s executives accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
The House Financial Services Committee plans to hold its first hearing to investigate the collapse of FTX on Dec. 13. The committee said it expects to hear from the companies and individuals involved, including Bankman-Fried and Alameda Research.
Trabucco’s connection to Bankman-Fried goes back to his time in high school when they met at a math camp. They were training for math competitions that would later help both get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mathematics program in 2011, one of the strongest in the world, according to MIT.
Trabucco said in a 2020 interview that the math competitions had also helped install the type of fast thinking that he would need as a trader. Out of MIT, Trabucco worked for two years at the quant trading firm Susquehanna International Group, LLP, with the desk handling bond exchange traded funds.
He left Susquehanna in 2017, began trading cryptocurrency, and later linked back up with Bankman-Fried, who had started up Alameda Research in San Francisco.
When Trabucco officially joined Alameda in 2019, it was moving headquarters to Hong Kong, which at the time had more relaxed crypto regulations than California. Bankman-Fried was also shifting his attention from Alameda to his cryptocurrency exchange FTX, which would officially launch in May 2019
Trabucco said that the Hong Kong relocation was when Alameda took on the role of FTX market maker and its staff got stretched especially thin.
“Before that, we could afford a few hours here and there, but not anymore, and we were working with a team of a few developers and three or four traders,” Trabucco said in a September interview. “Our team was so small, and we had so many things to do, that everyone had to be able to do them.”
When Ellison and Trabucco were named co-CEOs of Alameda in October of last year, Trabucco was only seven years out of his undergraduate degree and Ellison five.
In a 2021 interview with the news outlet “Crypto news,” Trabucco said he was meant to focus on risk management and broader strategy development but would step into other areas when things got busy.
Trabucco met some controversy as he developed a following as an influential quant trader at Alameda while also serving as a “market maker” for SBF’s FTX exchange.
His dual role raised red flags about the links between Alameda and FTX and allegations of potential insider trading.
In November 2019, the Bitcoin Manipulation Abatement LLC sued FTX, Alameda, and some of their associates, accusing them of market manipulation in a San Francisco court. In December the same year, the court dismissed the case.
Trabucco’s timeline with Alameda might place him at the scene of developments that undermined the company’s operations, as well as the reported backdoor funds received from FTX, according to data from blockchain analytics firm Nansen.
Sam Bankman Fried said in interviews in November with VOX News and the New York Times that Alameda borrowed billions of dollars of FTX customer funds. Allegedly, more than he had realized.
According to Niklas Polk, a researcher with Nansen: “a potential loan from FTX to bail out Alameda would most likely be a response to Alameda incurring heavy losses and/or being very illiquid at that time.”
“Our data points suggest that such a loan could have happened as early as the 3AC (hedge fund) collapse in June – roughly two months before Trabucco’s resignation,” added Polk.
Data from a Nansen report shows that around US$4 billion worth of FTT tokens were sent from Alameda to FTX between June and July. These tokens could’ve been collateral for an over US$4 billion FTX loan of user funds to Alameda, said the Nansen report
Now Trabucco could find himself implicated in Alameda’s potentially years-long bankruptcy, according to Richard Levin, chair of the fintech and regulation practice of law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.
“Any individual that leads an organization right before bankruptcy or several months before bankruptcy does not avoid potential responsibility in the eyes of the bankruptcy court or with respect to the civil and criminal prosecutions,” said Levin.
While Elison and Bankman-Fried have been the focus of the collapse, Trabucco’s time in leadership will be re-examined, he said.
“Numerous parties will be named as defendants, and the prosecutors in the criminal cases may offer plea bargains or agreements with certain defendants in order to get cooperation and obtain evidence,” said Levin