Last weekend, Bart Chilton, a former commissioner of the United States Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and early advocate for cryptocurrency regulation, died at the age of 58.
Apart from his work for the regulator, he was best known as the host of RT (formerly Russia Today) America’s financial show “Boom Bust” — in which he often covered cryptocurrency news — and as the author of the book “Ponzimonium: How Scam Artists Are Ripping Off America.”
The news about Chilton’s death was broken by RT, his latest employer, on April 27. According to the TV network, the Boom Bust host passed away as a result of “a sudden illness.” Later, CNBC wrote that Chilton died because of complications from pancreatic cancer, citing a family member.
Prior to working for the Russian state-owned television channel, Chilton had an eventful political career in the U.S. government, which lasted 25 years.
Chilton grew up in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, where he worked at a steel mill for a year before entering Purdue University in 1979. As he told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the heavy manual labor shaped his mindset before majoring in political science and communications, as Chilton felt that someone had to look out for “the little guy.”
However, Chilton dropped out one semester before graduation to work on Democratic Party’s 1984 political campaigns. From 1985 to 1995, he worked in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving as a legislative director for three different members of Congress and as the executive director of the bipartisan Congressional Rural Caucus. He later joined the executive branch during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, in which he became the deputy chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and acted as a liaison to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 2007, Chilton was nominated to be a CFTC commissioner by President Bush, and his position was subsequently confirmed by the Senate. He was renominated by President Barack Obama in 2009 and finished his work for the agency in 2014. Chilton chaired the agency’s Energy and Environmental Advisory and the Global Markets Advisory panels.
Soon after becoming a commissioner, Chilton started to champion strong pro-market regulation views, as illustrated by his first official remarks. Specifically, the public servant drew attention to the phenomenon of “massive passives,” arguing that the influx of pension and institutional investments provoked the volatility in commodity prices. As he explained to the WSJ, a “massive passive” could represent as much as 20% of one market — a percentage that “gets to be where you might not be able to control prices, but you have the possibility of moving them.”
Bloomberg describes Chilton as “a U.S. regulator who pushed for tighter regulation of swaps and derivatives.” According to The Washington Post, he was “perhaps best known for his mane of silver white hair and unconventional speeches, loaded with pop culture references and catchy phrases.” For instance, he famously nicknamed high-frequency traders “cheetahs” who race “in and out” of the market.
In November 2013, Chilton announced he was leaving the CFTC “in the not too distant future,” without specifying the reason. Soon, he began working for a high-frequency trading association, as a senior policy advisor at DLA Piper law firm.
“People are going to say, ‘wait a minute, you used to beat the [stuff] out of those guys,’ and I did, but I never said they should go away,” Chilton told CNBC of the move.
Chilton and crypto: From calling bitcoin a “shadow currency” to holding and ICO endorsements
Although Chilton has said that he’s been calling for cryptocurrency regulation since 2012, he never addressed the topic during his congressional speeches while working for the CFTC, as per the agency’s database. In fact, it seems that Chilton first publicly discussed bitcoin in May 2013 on CNBC, when he declared he was not “100% saying we should regulate it, but if anybody is going to, it seems like something we should consider.”
“It [bitcoin] is being potentially used for, you know, guns and money, and nobody is looking after it. It really is a shadow currency.”
Further on in the interview, Chilton argued that cryptocurrency holders “were losing actual money on this [bitcoin],” to support his viewpoint. “If people have the possibility of not being backed up, if things aren’t cleared, if there is no margin requirement, you don’t want this to be just a house of cards that can impact it.”
He then implied that the CFTC might oversee the cryptocurrency sector in the future, given that people seem to hold virtual currencies for future profits. That, in turn, appears to fit the description of a commodity and hence fall within the regulator’s purview, Chilton argued.
“If you guys want to be a shill for the financial industry, and support a shadow currency that people purchase drugs and money with, have a party, man. My job as a regulator, I’m going to look after it.”
In 2016, however, Chilton (no longer a CFTC commissioner) wrote a commentary for CNBC in which he called the bitcoin and blockchain industry “disruptive,” and argued that President Obama should ensure that its growth is not damaged by overly tight regulations, comparing it to the early IT-industry:
“When the internet was being developed, an effort and initiative by the Clinton administration to ensure that the fledgling idea would not be overly regulated was put in place — the 1997 Framework for Global Electronic Commerce. The point: to ensure laws and regulation would not negatively impact innovation. Current CFTC Commissioner Chris Giancarlo recently (and rightly) called for such protection for digital currency. President Obama should heed the call.”
In September 2017, Chilton highlighted bitcoin’s volatility as a major issue, saying that he would have started a probe into potential market manipulation if he still worked at the CFTC at the time. Specifically, he argued that the “blind spot” occurred because virtual currencies cannot be treated like other stocks due to their complicated, digital nature and that there were no Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements established within the industry.
In November 2017, the former CFTC commissioner declared that bitcoin wasn’t “a scam of a fraud”:
“I don’t think it’s, you know, a fraud, like [JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimonsaid, or a pyramid scheme like [Russian] President Putin says. I mean, people are actually using bitcoins to purchase things. So, that’s not a scam or a fraud.”
In January 2018, Chilton disclosed that he owned bitcoin (BTC) and ether (ETH):
“I wish I had been investing when I told everybody to be careful. I had a lot of my friends that said, ‘You told me not to invest.’ They would have been millionaires.”
Around the same time, it was revealed that the former CFTC regulator was involved in an initial coin offering (ICO) project called OilCoin, which billed itself as “the world’s first legally compliant cryptocurrency backed by oil reserves” and planned to launch an ICO in January 2018. However, OilCoin’s social media accounts went inactive as early as December 2017. Chilton’s name is still listed on the startup’s website under the “Founders and Directors” tab, suggesting that his endorsement could have stemmed from a commercial partnership.
“Good, Bad and Ugly of Cryptos”: Chilton’s latest views on crypto
In January 2019, Forbes published Chilton’s article titled “2019’s Good, Bad and Ugly of Cryptos,” which details a parallel between the crypto industry and the Clint Eastwood movie from 1960s. Indeed, as mentioned above, he often drew from pop culture to demonstrate his points — Chilton’s other Forbes piece largely references “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a 2018 biographical film about Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen.
In his latest articles, Chilton argued that the industry is becoming more civilized — futures trading on regulated exchanges like CBOE and CME, as well as Bakkt’s potential arrivalwere mentioned as examples — which, along with the massive price crackdown, are good developments for the market. However, he argued, security remains to be a great concern for crypto, with major hacks happening regularly.
Chilton was also supportive of the underlying technology. In March 2019, he shared his thoughts on various use cases and potential uses of blockchain — comparing it to bamboo — in a video at Hong Kong Blockchain Week called “Blockchain Dreamers and the Properties of Bamboo.” Prior to that, Chilton claimed that banks tend to ignore public ledgers because “they are trying to keep control of the financial system.”
CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo, also known as “crypto dad” for his “do no harm” approach toward crypto, was among many of Chilton’s colleagues who lamented his death. “In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Bart used his signature style of humor to draw attention to pressing issues for the agency and the markets at large, with the intent of protecting retail investors,” the chairman said. “With his passing, the commodities world has certainly lost a bit of its sparkle.”