Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Texas oil tycoon, best known for his alleged attempt to “corner the silver market” died on Tuesday in Dallas at the age of 88.
“A billion dollars ain’t what it used to be,” he opined in 1980 after his silver position collapsed amid scandalous times in the market of the devil’s metal.
Although mostly known for his huge silver positions in the seventies, Bunker Hunt owned more than silver. The jovial 275-pound man, one of the richest men in the 1960’s and ’70s, owned at the peak of his wealth five million acres of grazing land in Australia, 1,000 thoroughbreds on farms from Ireland to New Zealand, eight million acres of oil fields in Libya, offshore wells in the Philippines and Mexico, and an empire of skyscrapers, cattle ranches, mining interests and so on.
In the 1970s, as inflation ran as high as 13 percent, he saw turbulent times ahead economically and otherwise. And he thought silver would be a good investment.
As Bloomberg writes:
“There were the communists, the liberals, the proponents of the welfare state. If inflation didn’t rob him of his billions, the tax man would.”
So the Hunt’s bought silver. They needed and wanted enough to hedge inflation. So they needed a lot.
Although Bunker Hunt is oft portrayed as a speculator, according Tim Knight, author of “Panic, Prosperity and Progress: Five Centuries of History and the Markets” (2014), “Hunt had a paranoid world view and it made sense to him to amass silver and hang on to it. He was a true believer.”
Nelson Bunker Hunt had begun purchasing silver with his brothers in 1973, when silver cost $2 an ounce.
Seven years later, the Hunt brothers had bought more than 200 million ounces. The price was on its way to nearly $50, regulators were looking to make sure nothing like what the Hunt brothers did to the silver market would happen again, and the Hunts were making billions.
The Hunts “moved the price of silver around the world,” said Thomas O. Gorman, who successfully sued the Hunts for market manipulation.
Knight told Bloomberg, “Hunt chartered three 707 jet aircraft to haul the metal to warehouses in Switzerland and hired a dozen sharpshooting cowboys to provide security.” Hardly the evidence of a market manipulator.
The Hunts were buying so much silver they needed to create surrogates to buy for them, like Conti Commodities.
The price of silver increased steadily throughout the 1970s. In 1979, silver started the year at about $6 an ounce. It ended that year above $32.
Tiffany & Co. at one point even bought an advertisement in the New York Times which read, “We think it is unconscionable for anyone to hoard several billion, yes billion, dollars worth of silver and thus drive the price up so high that others must pay artificially high prices for articles made of silver from baby spoons to tea sets, as well as photographic film and other products.”
On January 7, 1980 the Comex and the Chicago Board of Trade instituted new rules like higher margin requirements. This caused the price to start crashing.
“They broke the ascent by basically outlawing the buying of silver,” said Knight. “Only liquidation orders would be accepted. It’s almost criminal what they did.”
March 27, 1980 is known as silver Thursday. After silver fell from $49 to $16.60, weakness in the prices persisted. On silver Thursday, Comex asked Bache Group, the Hunts’ broker, for $134 million. Although the brothers had amassed $4.5 billion in silver, $3.5 billion in profit, they did not have $134 million liquid, speaking to how ideologically-focused on silver the brothers were.
Bunker Hunt was overseas and could not authorize the funds transfer. Bache had no authority to do anything but liquidate silver. The price of silver fell from $15.70 to $10.80 an ounce.
According to Kurt Eichenwald’s “Serpent on the Rock,” the Hunts sold oil and gas leases, real estate, coal leases, antiques, a Mercedes and a Rolex as the price of silver tumbled to raise margins. They lost all of this collateral.
“Twelve U.S. banks, the American branches of four foreign banks and five brokerage houses had provided the Hunts’ silver-buying venture with more than $800 million — equivalent to almost 10 percent of all the bank lending in the country in the previous two months,” William Greider stated in “Secrets of the Temple” (1987).
Making things worse, the Hunts had purchased a futures contract worth 19 million ounces of silver with delivery scheduled for Monday, March 31. The Hunts had to pay or the price of silver would fall again. The banks would be on the hook for that as well.
The banks put together a $1.1 billion loan, with approval from Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, to stop what appeared to be a future default by the Hunt brothers due to the collapse of the price of silver.
The Hunts were sued for market manipulation by a Peruvian company. They lost. $180 million was their bill. They went bankrupt.
The lawsuit against the Hunts was “the most important manipulation case ever tried,” Jeffrey C. Williams, a witness for the hunts in the trial, penned in his chronicle of the lawsuit, “Manipulation on Trial” (1995).
“They never tried to corner the market,” Christian insists. “They bought a lot of silver. They invested, in a big way, a sloppy way. Cornering is not an accurate description.”
Hunt lived for the 25 years after the silver debacle. He was banned from trading commodities. His father’s oil company, Hunt Oil Co., survived. His brother Herbert become a billionaire by investing in North Dakota shale oil.
When he was buying purebread horses, Hunt one quipped,
“I don’t really know anything. I am just trying to win a few races.”
When his silver manipulation days came crashing down, he said similar.
“I was just trying to make some money,” he replied.