July 23, 2024

Binance founder Zhao’s huge wealth unaffected by prison sentence

  • Changpeng Zhao, the billionaire co-founder and former CEO of Binance, is expected to see his mammoth wealth remain intact and likely continue to climb even as he faces time behind bars after his sentencing in a Seattle court.
  • Zhao was sentenced to four months in prison on Tuesday, after pleading guilty to charges of enabling money laundering at his crypto exchange.
  • Zhao has an estimated personal net worth of $33 billion, according to Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list.

Cryptocurrency exchange Binance founder and CEO Changpeng Zhao speaks at a Binance fifth anniversary event in Paris, France, July 8, 2022. 

Staff | Reuters

Changpeng Zhao, the billionaire co-founder and former CEO of Binance, is expected to see his mammoth wealth remain intact and likely continue to climb even as he faces time behind bars after his sentencing in a Seattle court.

Zhao, who is commonly referred to as “CZ” in crypto circles, was sentenced to four months in prison on Tuesday, after pleading guilty to charges of enabling money laundering at his crypto exchange.

The sentence handed down to Zhao in Seattle federal court was significantly less than the three years that federal prosecutors had been seeking for him. The defense had asked for five months of probation. Sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of 12 to 18 months.

A Binance spokesperson said in a statement to CNBC the crypto exchange has made “considerable compliance enhancements,” including with regards to anti-money laundering detection and “hiring key compliance personnel.”

A lawyer for Zhao did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

In November, Zhao struck a deal with the U.S. government to resolve a multiyear investigation into Binance. As part of Binance’s $4.3 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Zhao stepped down as the company’s CEO, and the exchange agreed to form a board of directors with independent members, as well as compliance and audit committees.

Of the seven total directors recently named to the since-formed board of directors, three were designated as being “independent” — and five of them, including all of the board’s independent members, submitted letters to the judge in Zhao’s criminal case asking for leniency in sentencing.

Gabriel Abed, the board’s chairman and one of its independent members, told U.S. District Judge Richard Jones that Zhao was “distinguished by a stoic composure and genuine humility” and that “despite his significant achievements,” he maintained a lifestyle marked by simplicity including dressing in clothes bought on Amazon, driving a Toyota and wearing an Apple watch.

Despite Zhao now facing time in prison, industry experts and lawyers who spoke with CNBC say his tremendous personal wealth will remain unaffected and, if anything, is likely to rise.

Los Angeles corporate law attorney Tre Lovell tells CNBC that the government is only entitled to any restitution or fines imposed and not to Zhao’s assets or wealth as a whole. Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani agrees, adding that Zhao’s personal wealth won’t be affected by his sentence.

“Because Zhao and the government came to an agreement, the government didn’t get a judgment or restitution order against Zhao and do discovery into his assets,” said Rahmani. “He’ll have significant wealth when he is released from prison.”

Changpeng Zhao, former CEO of Binance, arrives at federal court in Seattle, Washington, April 30, 2024.

David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Zhao took Binance, the cryptocurrency exchange he co-founded in 2017, from a relatively obscure company to one of the most formidable players in the booming digital currency space.

Despite the fact that Zhao is being put behind bars, his controlling stake in Binance means that he will continue being one of the wealthiest people in crypto today.

Notably, because Zhao pleaded guilty to only one count of violation of the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), he is regarded as a first-time offender, and thus reached a settlement with federal authorities to step down as CEO and not relinquish his interest in the company or have assets frozen.

“Typically, personal assets that are not directly linked to the criminal activity might remain unaffected,” said Braden Perry, a former senior trial lawyer for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “His assets could also be managed on his behalf while he is incarcerated.”

That’s a different siutation from Sam Bankman-Fried, the controversial ex-CEO and founder of crypto exchange FTX. Bankman-Fried, who’s commonly referred to as “SBF,” saw his wealth reduced to zero after his crypto empire collapsed into bankruptcy in 2022.

“In relation to CZ’s personal wealth … he would still be able to retain his share in Binance, as well as maintain his crypto holdings which also contribute an unknown, yet material, amount to his overall wealth and net worth,” Joshua de Vos, research lead at CCData, told CNBC via email.

“Since there is no misappropriation or bankruptcy proceedings, it is highly unlikely that CZ would see his wealth reduced to zero as was the case with SBF,” de Vos said.

What’s more, Zhao has gotten off much easier in sentencing than former crypto rival Bankman-Fried. Bankman-Fried received a 25-year prison term for crimes connected to the operation of his crypto exchange.

Unlike Zhao and the charges brought against Binance, Bankman-Fried’s bankrupt exchange faced allegations of fraud and misuse of customers’ funds.

Experts say that Zhao’s net worth is likely to continue rising as buoyant crypto prices, which tend to support trading activity on Binance, boost his own personal fortune.

“CZ will now be one of the wealthiest people in prison,” said Yesha Yadav, law professor and associate dean at Vanderbilt University.

That’s even after a litany of legal troubles, including the Department of Justice’s case against it, and several other high-profile lawsuits — including one from the Securities and Exchange Commission which remains ongoing.

The SEC has accused Binance of making multiple unregistered offers and sales of crypto asset securities. It is not yet clear when that case will reach a conclusion.

Zhao had an estimated personal net worth of $33 billion on March 8, 2024, up from $10.5 billion the same time last year, according to Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list, which ranks the richest peopole using stock prices and exchange rates.

Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, a separate measure of the world’s wealthiest, pegs Zhao’s net worth at an even higher sum, $42.9 billion.

CNBC was unable to independently verify Zhao’s overall net worth.

But Zhao is widely reported to have an estimated 90% stake in Binance, and his fortune is largely derived from his equity ownership in the company.

Binance is by far the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume, processing $18.1 trillion worth of trading volume in 2023, according to data from crypto market data firm CCData.

Around 80% — or $14.4 trillion — of that came from derivatives products like futures contracts, while the remaining $3.7 trillion came from spot trading. Derivatives trading is a key part of Binance’s business.

And even though Binance has seen its market share drop to 41.6% since Zhao stepped down as CEO in November 2023, the company remains the dominant player overall — leagues ahead of South Korean exchange Upbit, Dubai-headquartered Bybit, and U.S. giant Coinbase.

Zhao has said previously he has personal investments in bitcoin and Binance’s own BNB token, however he’s not disclosed the value of those holdings. Binance Coin, or BNB, is up 83% so far this year to $576.

Lucas Kiely, chief investment officer of digital wealth platform Yield App, said that Zhao’s “significant stake in the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by volume positions him to potentially benefit from the overall growth of the crypto market.”

The recent approval of a spot bitcoin exchange-traded fund in the U.S. has led to renewed interest in the crypto market, and helped trigger a wave of fresh institutional investment, according to Kiely — and that’s sure to be a boon to Binance.

“Such developments could contribute to the growth of Binance and, by extension, CZ’s wealth,” he told CNBC.

Zhao has been hit with a partial knock to his overall fortune — he was forced to pay a $50 million fine, in addition to the $4.3 billion in fines and forfeiture Binance was ordered to pay for violating the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act and sanctions on Iran. Yadav noted that it’s also possible Zhao makes some contribution to the billions Binance owes to the government.

Yadav tells CNBC that even though CZ’s vast wealth is not directly under threat by virtue of his conviction and the sentencing today, there may still be some indirect effects.

“Negative long-term impact on Binance will diminish the value of CZ’s investment in the crypto exchange,” said Yadav. “Conversely, however, CZ may even benefit if Binance begins a path to recovery following today’s sentencing, the plea deal and monitorship arrangement, and regains its market share over time as a result.”

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