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Bitcoin Billionaires or Broke? Demystifying the Crypto Craze

After a brutal 18 months of bankruptcies, company failures and criminal trials, the crypto market is starting to claw back some of its former standing.

Bitcoin is up more than 150% this year. Meanwhile, Solana
is nearly 10x higher in the last 12 months, and bitcoin miner Marathon Digital
has also skyrocketed. Crypto-pegged stocks like Coinbase
, MicroStrategy
and the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust rose more than 300% in value year-to-date.

But even as prices swell, the sector’s reputation has struggled to regain ground after names virtually synonymous with bitcoin have both been found guilty of crimes directly related to their multibillion-dollar crypto empires.

For years, Binance’s Changpeng Zhao and FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried preached the power of decentralized, digital currencies to the masses. Both were bitcoin
billionaires who ran their own global cryptocurrency exchanges and spent much of their professional career selling the public on a new, tech-powered world order; one where an alternative financial system comprised of borderless virtual coins would liberate the oppressed by eliminating middlemen like banks and the over-reach of the government.

Yet they both, in the end, helped crypto critics and regulators make the case that some of them had been right all along; that the industry was rife with grifters and fraudsters intent on using new tech to carry out age-old crimes.

Even when the crypto market was at its hottest, as token prices hit all-time highs in Oct. 2021, some of the biggest names in business and politics shared their doubts.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in 2021 at peak crypto valuations that bitcoin was “worthless,” and he doubled down on that sentiment earlier this year when he said that the digital currency was a “hyped-up fraud.” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said in 2018 that he would short bitcoin if he could, adding that cryptocurrencies are “kind of a pure ‘greater fool theory’ type of investment.” Legendary investor Warren Buffett said he wouldn’t buy all of the bitcoin in the world for $25, because “it doesn’t produce anything,” and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has long been one of crypto’s greatest naysayers on Capitol Hill.

Rather than ushering in a new era of financial freedom, Zhao and Bankman-Fried were found guilty on a mix of charges including fraud and money laundering. Once the two biggest names in crypto, the sector’s greatest proponents now face jail time.

Bankman-Fried, 31, could be sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of seven criminal counts in early November, including charges related to stealing billions of dollars from FTX’s customers. Less than three weeks after Bankman-Fried’s conviction, Zhao pleaded guilty to criminal charges and stepped down as Binance’s CEO as part of a $4.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice.

Their crimes varied, but ultimately, both crypto execs went from industry titans to convicted frauds in the span of 12 months, and it was, in part, the bitter feud between them that landed them there.

“They were both responsible for behavior that has kept a black eye on crypto and its association with criminal behavior,” said Renato Mariotti, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Justice Department’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Section.

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