Arthur Hayes lives large. Like Bobby Axelrod-in-Billions large. Just replace New York with Hong Kong and infuse it with a dose of Silicon Valley—where unicorns spring from the minds of irrepressible company founders—and, well, you get the picture. One minute Hayes is hitting the powder in Hokkaido, the next he’s crushing it on a subterranean squash court in Central—Hong Kong’s Wall Street. And all the while he keeps one eye trained on an obscure-sounding currency exchange that he built out of thin air and through which more than $3 trillion has flowed.
Screen-star handsome and fabulously wealthy, the African American banker turned maverick personifies the contemporary fintech pioneer. But the feds describe Arthur Hayes differently: a wanted man who “flouted” the law by operating in the “shadows of the financial markets.” Hayes’s indictment was unsealed in October, and he remains at large in Asia as prosecutors in New York hope to arrest him and try him on two felony counts, which carry a possible penalty of 10 years in prison.
This is a tale of new money versus old, financial whiz kids upstaging banking’s old guard, and American authorities attempting to apply 20th-century laws to 21st-century innovation. Prosecutors allege that Hayes and his business partners violated the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to implement and maintain an adequate anti-money-laundering program—to weed out bad actors and dirty money. Meanwhile, Hayes’s colleagues in the cryptocurrency world believe he is being punished for building an ingenious product that has baffled lawmakers, bedeviled regulators, and—once it became wildly popular—posed a threat to some of the markets’ biggest players. Adding to the chorus of voices are some high-powered legal experts who consider the case United States of America v. Arthur Hayes to be largely unprecedented.
At a time when the SEC is seemingly doing the bidding of Wall Street titans—eager to punish the unwashed masses of day traders for scuttling banks’ and hedge funds’ trading positions on GameStop and other stocks—Hayes might just be patient zero when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy in high finance that is now coming into sharp relief.
Hayes, 35, went radio silent in October. But the crypto condor has not always been so elusive. Born to middle-class parents who worked for General Motors and were beholden to the ever-changing fortunes of the auto giant, he split his formative years between Detroit and Buffalo, where his mother, Barbara, moved mountains to get her gifted son into Nichols School, a leafy private institution founded in 1892. “He succeeded at everything, from his studies [to] the sports field, to making lasting friendships,” reads a testimony, featuring Barbara, on one of the fundraising pages of the school’s website. “Nichols gave him the setting, the stimulation, and at one point, the scholarship to thrive.” Hayes, in return, has given back: underwriting a scholarship that ensures “a deserving student will be able to experience the excellence of a Nichols education and the lifelong benefits it brings.
After attending the Wharton School of business, he headed off to Hong Kong, where he worked at Deutsche Bank and Citibank as a market maker for exchange-traded funds, or ETFs—hybrid securities that, not unlike mutual funds, diversify an investor’s risk but can be traded like stocks. Hayes was just hitting his stride when a pink slip arrived in May 2013. “Bankers tell you everybody has a bullet with their name on it,” he explained one afternoon over tea at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore—the iconic hotel featured in the finale of Crazy Rich Asians. He was wearing his standard attire: skintight T-shirt, jeans, and a pricey timepiece (a Hublot Big Bang). “I wasn’t married, had no kids, no obligations. I had been an investment banker, so I wasn’t sleeping on the streets. I wanted to build something.”
(I interviewed Hayes and some of his cohorts in Hong Kong, Singapore, and New York in 2018 and 2019. Since the October indictment, I have spoken at length with insiders who know and are in communication with Hayes and his two indicted business partners, Ben Delo and Sam Reed. A number of these sources requested anonymity so as not to prejudice pending legal proceedings; on the advice of counsel, Hayes, Delo, and Reed opted not to comment for this story.)
But back to that pink slip. Eight years ago Hayes, out of a job, decided to go solo, combining his knack for designing novel financial instruments with a newfound passion: cryptocurrency. Specifically, Bitcoin.
Cryptocurrency, it bears repeating, is a digital form of payment and a method for storing value. It relies on a secure, decentralized ledger—called a blockchain—to record transactions, manage the issuance of new “coins” or “tokens,” and prevent fraud and counterfeiting. Though there are thousands of such currencies out there, Bitcoin is by far the most durable, despite having a dubious backstory involving an enigmatic creator named Satoshi Nakamoto, whose existence and identity have never been established. Bitcoin’s blockchain was designed so that only 21 million “virtual coins” would ever be “mined.” That kind of verifiable scarcity—in contrast with the tendency of the world’s central bankers to print money, whether in a pandemic or whenever it is politically expedient—has contributed to the currency’s precipitous rise in price, from less than a penny in 2009 to over $41,000 in January 2021. In 2020 alone the coin rose over 300% in value.
At first Hayes was a nobody among crypto’s dank sea of tax evaders, drug dealers, arms traffickers, child pornographers, contrarian libertarians, and wanker bankers pining for a return to the gold standard. They were united by their disenchantment with old-school banking and its laggardly pace, onerous verification requirements for opening accounts and moving money, and a sense that the relationship between Big Finance and Big Government had become entirely too cozy. In their view, governments, starting with the U.S. and rippling outward, believed and acted as though they had a monopoly on money and resisted the crypto uprising, in which people were investing in reputedly anonymous digital assets to make a profit, hide their wealth, flip off the establishment, or some combination thereof. The crypto gold rush initially attracted three types of players: visionaries with gold-plated résumés, boiler room sharks who could recite just enough buzzwords to B.S. their way through a capital raise, and the inevitable parasites who latch on and try to feed off the others.