Senator Katie Muth, a Board Member for the $40 billion Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) will never forget the first meeting of the pension board she attended and the ESG presentation she heard which included cryptocurrency as a solution for the un-banked in African countries. “I was really looking forward to the ESG presentation but was very confused as to how blackbox fake currency could improve the lives of people suffering from economic hardship on the continent. The un-banked need equitable financial opportunities—not the opportunity to be scammed and further exploited by tech-savvy Westerners.”
For those who have conveniently forgotten, there was a time—not so long ago—when cryptocurrency was sold to our nation’s state and local government pensions as consistent with their ESG objectives. (“ESG” stands for environmental, social, and governance. ESG investing is a way of investing in companies based on their commitment to one or more ESG factors. It is often also called sustainable investing, socially responsible investing, and impact investing.)
In his testimony at a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture in May, 2022, Sam Bankman-Fried, Co-Founder and CEO of FTX stated that his “business was established in order to build a digital-asset trading platform and exchange with a better user experience, customer protection, equitable access, and innovative products, and to provide a trading platform robust enough for professional trading firms and intuitive enough for first time users…
FTX has aimed to combine the best practices of the traditional financial system with the best form the digital-asset ecosystem.”
He spoke eloquently about FTX’s commitment to a diverse workforce. “We are proud of our workforce at FTX and believe that one of our key strengths is a culture of mutual respect and cooperation. This type of culture is borne from the diversity of our team, which necessitates a spirit of empathy, understanding and humility. These traits in our workforce are good for business and are much of the reason we have been successful at understanding our customers and their needs, and executing on products that meet their needs. FTX has employees all over the world with diverse ethnic backgrounds, and 60 percent of women in our workforce are in senior management positions. The majority of our global leadership comes from diverse backgrounds.”
Then there was the commitment to “giving back.”
“FTX is committed to improving the lives not just of our customers through superior products, but also the lives of those in the broader global community. Toward this end, FTX created the FTX Foundation, founded with the goal of donating to the world’s most effective charities. At minimum, one percent of net fees from FTX transactions are donated to the foundation; additionally, FTX’s founders have pledged to donate the majority of what they make. Mr. Bankman-Fried has personally committed to donating 99% of his wealth. In 2022 alone, FTX, its affiliates and its employees so far have donated over $100 million to alleviate global poverty, provide ventilators to countries ravaged by covid, provide financial services to the un- and under-banked, and combat climate change by ensuring FTX is carbon-neutral, and help the world achieve a brighter future. FTX has launched additional philanthropic initiatves including the FTX Future Fund which invests in ambitious projects aiming to improve humanity’s long-term prospects. FTX Community’s philanthropic efforts are focused upon global poverty, animal welfare, and community outreach. In 2021, FTX Community organized the FTX Charity Hackathon and awarded $1 million to a local student group with the best idea to improve mental and physical health.”
Then there was the commitment to “carbon neutrality.”
“FTX Climate is a comprehensive initiative to make FTX carbon-neutral, support important environmental projects, and fund transformational research on the most impactful solutions to climate change. FTX plans to spend at least $1 million annually through FTX Climate. FTX has endeavored to take ownership of our portion of the environmental costs of mining associated with public blockchains and has purchased carbon offsets to neutralize those cost, in addition to funding research.”
Perhaps most memorable, FTX was going to provide banking to the un- and under-banked.
Said Bankman-Fried: “FTX is dedicated to harnessing the power of crypto to tangibly improve lives. We are working with non-profit organizations, cities and countries to make the financial system more inclusive.
According to Federal Reserve estimates, 70 million Americans are either unbanked or underbanked. They lack a safe place to store money and pay exorbitant fees to cash checks. Millions more are banked but face high fees when their balance falls below a minimum. Members of these communities often do not have insured checking accounts, for a variety of reasons, including credit histories. The legacy bank settlement system makes it hard to see realtime balances, and leads to overdrafts, which leads to higher fees. Our bank the underbanked program offers those cut out of the financial system a free bank account and debit card linked to a crypto wallet. There are no fees, and no minimum balances. Transferring funds is virtually free and instantaneous and can be accessed on a phone. They can use it to receive money, make payments and build savings. There are no fees and no minimum balance. Transferring funds through the crypto wallet is virtually fee and instantaneous.”
And, finally, FTX was even defending Ukraine from Russian invasion.
“Ukraine is deploying digital assets to defend against Russia’s invasion and support the population. In collaboration with the Government of Ukraine, FTX is converting millions of dollars in wartime crypto donations to fiat for the National Bank of Ukraine. This marks the first-ever instance of a cryptocurrency exchange directly cooperating with a public financial entity to provide a conduit for crypto donations. Facilitated by FTX, the Ukrainian government has purchased crucial defense and humanitarian equipment including medicine, ballistic plates for bulletproof vests, walkie-talkies, lunches for soldiers, thermal imagers and helmets. Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation has noted, “Each and every helmet and vest bought via crypto donations is currently saving Ukrainian soldiers’ lives.” Additionally when the war broke out in Ukraine, FTX gave $25 to every Ukrainian user of our platform.”
So, gambling on blackbox cryptocurrency was marketed as an elegant solution to climate change, racial and gender diversity, income disparity and financial system exclusivity, and even war in Ukraine.
Crypto was going to “improve lives” and many ESG investors, including our nation’s state and local government pensions—so-called “sophisticated institutions”—couldn’t resist gambling workers’ retirement savings on the dream. Now those same pensions either outright deny, delay public disclosure, or claim they don’t have access to information regarding, any direct or indirect (through external fund managers) crypto holdings.
Nevertheless, information regarding the “crypto-contagion” at public pensions is gradually emerging, with some funds, such as Fairfax County Virginia, disclosing holdings over a staggering 10%. Whether you support or reject ESG, the crypto crisis is a profound reminder that coupling even the most laudable objectives with investment decision-making can lead to disastrous results.