In a city filled with federal agency commissioners making speeches every day, Bart Chilton of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission stands apart.
From Star Trek to Taoism, Tom Petty to Starsky & Hutch, March Madness to Moneyball, Chilton is known for leavening potentially dry-as-dust subject matter with abundant pop culture references.
His CFTC colleagues give speeches with titles like “Re-proposed Procedures to Establish Appropriate Minimum Block Sizes for Large Notional Off-Facility Swaps and Block Trades.” Chilton’s are called “Lettuce Produce,” “Day Tripper,” “Huggy Bear and Position Limits” and “It Takes a Pillage – Financial Fiascos, Frauds and Fixes,” – not to mention more esoteric entries like “The Ancient Art of Glassmaking.”
It’s not that Chilton, a Democrat who formerly lobbied for the National Farmer’s Union, doesn’t delve into serious policy details – he does. But he gets there in a more round-about fashion.
“My target audience is not sophisticated Wall Street investors – it’s consumers,” he said in an interview, noting that the complex financial markets that the CFTC regulates “impact the prices people pay for just about everything they consume or use,” – whether it’s a gallon of milk, a gallon of gas, a carton of orange juice, a mortgage, or the metal in the roof over their head. “One of my jobs is to try and communicate the importance of these markets and explain what’s going on.”
Or as he put it in a May 3 speech in Chicago, “We at the CFTC currently oversee approximately $5 trillion in annualized trading on regulated exchanges, but the global over-the-counter (OTC) market is roughly–here it comes…coming to get you–$708 trillion. If you Google ginormously humongous, it should say, ‘See OTC markets.’”
He’s become a sought-after public speaker – one day last week alone, he said he turned down five offers to give speeches. “I’m not saying I’m a great speaker – but I’m free,” he said. Moreover, he sees giving speeches as part of his “public duty” as a commissioner.
He keeps a list in his BlackBerry of song lyrics, T-shirt slogans, anything that strikes his fancy as a way to help explain the often impenetrable world of futures and derivatives (“There’s enough acronyms alone to drown a body,” he said.)
So he makes it fun. Usually around the third paragraph of a speech, he introduces a theme via a cultural reference (albeit sometimes dated – as he told the Citizens for Financial Reform on May 9, “One is getting old when a lot of your references seem like they need references or footnotes”).
Take his address “The Changling” delivered on March 14 to a Futures Industry Association panel, where he set up a discussion of cheetahs, or high frequency traders, and securitization or equitization of the futures markets, like this:
“It is sort of like that old episode of Star Trek, ‘The Changeling’” where the crew of the Enterprise encounters a space probe called Nomad that was designed to explore the galaxy. However, Nomad had collided with an alien probe – a probe that was to obtain and sterilize soil samples. The collision changed Nomad and transformed its mission into finding and sterilizing imperfection. And of course, biological units (like people) have imperfections. So, Nomad was sort of a problem. Kirk got it to destroy itself. The point, and I do have one, is that there were two seemingly fine technologies that, when combined, created something that was a major problemo for people.”
Then there’s his May 3 address, “Space Between Walls,” delivered at an international credit executives conference in Chicago, discussing suitable regulatory walls (a speech in which he also memorably referred to Bernie Madoff as “the Ponzimonium poster puke.”)
Chilton noted that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that banks prior to the 2008 crisis had “a vast amount of ‘wide open spaces’ in which to operate…Like the Dixie Chicks sing, ‘She needs wide open spaces, room to make her big mistakes.’ Well, as the ole D.C. dodge expression goes, ‘mistakes were made.’”
Near the end of the speech, which also included references to Mr. Peabody, Lao Tzu, John Mellencamp, The Graduate and Oscar Wilde, he added, “I was tempted to hum or sing a little Dave Matthews’ The Space Between. Actually, I’m still tempted, but I sound more like Governor Romney and less like President Obama, so I'd better spare you….I’ll be happy to take some questions or comments in ‘The space between what’s wrong and right, is where you’ll find me hiding, waiting for you.’ Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”