How Nelson Bunker Hunt tried to corner the silver market

Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Texan oil tycoon who tried to corner the silver market in the 1970s and went spectacularly bust, had a wonderful way with words, says The Daily Telegraph.

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money,” he told US Senate investigators when explaining his role in the debacle.

His observation that “people who know how much they are worth generally aren’t worth much” has become a favourite of the super-rich.

The soundbites have stayed with us, but it’s often forgotten that Bunker Hunt, who has died at the age of 88, and his brother Herbert, came close to bringing down the entire American financial system.

When the silver price plunged in 1980 (see below), federal regulators and the nation’s banks were forced to step in with a massive line of credit. That stopped a stampede, and saved Hunt (reputed to be worth $16bn at his peak) from being totally wiped out.

Thousands of others caught up in the turmoil were less fortunate and the brothers spent decades fighting lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings and damage claims that gobbled up vast tracts of their fortune, including the family firm Placid Oil.

“Most painful of all for Bunker” was the forced sale of 580 of his racehorses for $47m, including his prized mare Dahlia.

Born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1926, Hunt grew up amid extreme wealth. His father, a professional poker player turned wildcatter, had already discovered a huge oil field in Texas.

When Bunker was 12, the family moved to Dallas, where they lived in a replica of George Washington’s house. It wasn’t until years later that he and his five siblings discovered that their father had two other families.

Often likened to the scheming JR Ewing of the TV drama Dallas, Hunt was a “jovial eccentric” who cultivated “a devil-may-care Texas mystique”, says The New York Times. He drove a battered Cadillac, favoured burger and chili joints (reflected in his 21-stone frame) and liked spending time in “dusty barnyards in the raucous company of ranch hands”.

A non-smoking teetotaler, he “loathed the federal government, warned of international communist conspiracies, spouted anti- Semitic sentiments… and bankrolled expeditions to save the Titanic and find Noah’s Ark”.

He sometimes came across “as a fat, squinty-eyed bumbler”, wrote one Hunt clan biographer. But he was “sharp, crafty and gifted, with the same mathematical mind his father had”.

Bunker also inherited his father’s “knack for thinking big”, says The Washington Post. Having run through a $250m inheritance looking for oil, he made “a spectacular find” in Libya in the late 1950s, which produced vast amounts of crude and money.

However, that gravy train came to an abrupt end in 1973, when Colonel Gaddafi nationalised oil, says The Daily Telegraph – a shock that persuaded Hunt “of the need to invest in something ‘safe’”. His solution was silver. The rest is history.

A divine but disastrous wager

Why did the Hunt brothers make their disastrous bet on silver? They always insisted it was a straightforward hedge against inflation, then being fuelled by rising oil prices, says Matt Schudel in The Washington Post. But there may have been other factors at work.

According to the family biographer, Harry Hurt, Bunker Hunt’s evangelical Christian beliefs had convinced him that the Apocalypse was nigh and “would render paper currency worthless”. At the time, private US citizens weren’t allowed to buy gold, so silver seemed the obvious safe haven.

In 1973, when the brothers started buying, silver was cheap, says Jurek Martin in the Financial Times. Their early bullion purchases were snapped up for as little as $1.50/oz. As the price rose throughout the decade, “their speculation made them billions”.

But they kept on buying, often using borrowed money, and by the end of the decade, they held between 30% and 50% of world silver stocks.

As word got out that the Hunts were cornering the market, the price rocketed from $9 an ounce to a record high near $50 in a four-month period in 1979-1980. Summoned to a congressional hearing, Bunker was evasive. Asked how much silver he owned, he replied, “That’s known only to God and me. The Lord isn’t talking, so I won’t, either.”

The inflated price caused dealers to release a flood of metal on to the market, says The Daily Telegraph. When the crash came on 27 March 1980 (“Silver Thursday”), it was brutal. As silver collapsed to $10.80/oz, the Hunts were unable to cover huge margin calls.

The threat that several large Wall Street brokerage firms and banks might collapse was “so grave” that the Federal Reserve reluctantly allowed them a $1bn credit line.

The Hunts filed for bankruptcy in 1988: the subsequent firesale included a $20 teapot. But they got off lightly, says Robert McFadden in The New York Times. “They managed to salvage millions” through family trusts – and never faced criminal charges.

Merryn

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