To Nelson Bunker Hunt, the world was full of enemies.
There was inflation. It was running as high as 13 percent in the 1970s, like a thief threatening to steal the family fortune earned by his father, H.L., in the oil fields of East Texas.
There was Moammar Gadhafi and the American oil men who collaborated with him. When Hunt and his brothers William Herbert and Lamar had refused to pay Gadhafi half their earnings from the Libyan oil fields, like their competitors had, Gadhafi had simply snatched the Hunts’ 8 million acres.
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.
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The answer was silver. Enough silver to hedge against inflation. Enough to stay rich despite Gadhafi and the Internal Revenue Service, said Tim Knight, author of “Panic, Prosperity and Progress: Five Centuries of History and the Markets.”
“Silver to him was not a pump-and-dump scheme,” Knight said. “Hunt had a paranoid world view and it made sense to him to amass silver and hang on to it.”
Hunt died Oct. 21 at the age of 88 of congestive heart failure after a long battle with cancer and dementia, according to The Dallas Morning News.
When he began buying silver with his brothers in 1973, it cost $2 an ounce and a big consumer was Eastman Kodak to make film.
Before the Hunts were through, seven years later, they’d stockpiled more than 200 million ounces, the price was soaring past $45 an ounce and regulators were preparing to take measures to make sure nothing like what Nelson Bunker Hunt had done would ever happen again.
The Hunts “moved the price of silver around the world,” said Thomas Gorman, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney in Washington, D.C., who successfully sued the Hunts for market manipulation.
Most traders buy and sell paper. The actual stuff represented by that paper is delivered to someone else.
Hunt wanted the silver. He chartered three 707 jet aircraft to haul the metal to warehouses in Switzerland and hired a dozen sharpshooting cowboys to provide security, according to Knight.
In the late 1970s, the Hunts were accumulating so much silver they needed surrogates to buy it for them, said George Gero, who traded the metal at the Commodity Exchange’s open outcry pit in New York for the investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert.
“The main buyer for Nelson Bunker Hunt was Conti Commodities, and when we saw the Conti broker coming to the pit, we’d all buy some silver,” raising the price, said Gero, now vice president, global futures, for RBC Capital Markets in New York.
Through the 1970s the price rose slowly, steadily. Then, in 1979, quickly. Silver started the year around $6 an ounce and ended the year at more than $32.
Everyone got in on the trade. Grandmothers sold the family cutlery. Thieves were making off with silver jewelry and melting it down.
It got so bad that Tiffany, the New York-based jeweler, bought an advertisement in The New York Times that said, “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 Jan. 7, 1980, in response to the Hunts’ position, Comex and the Chicago Board of Trade imposed emergency rules, including higher margin requirements.
“They broke the ascent by basically outlawing the buying of silver,” said Knight, who blogs at slopeofhope.com. “Only liquidation orders would be accepted. It’s almost criminal what they did.”
On March 27, 1980 — what came to be known as “silver Thursday” — Comex asked Bache Group, the Hunts’ broker, for $134 million. The three Hunt brothers had $4.5 billion in silver holdings, $3.5 billion of it profit, Knight said. But they didn’t have $134 million.
“An administrative glitch” was the reason, according to Jeffrey Christian, who was a reporter at Metals Week at the time. The only person who could authorize the funds transfer to pay the margin call was Bunker Hunt, and he was overseas, Christian said.
The Hunts had put up oil and gas leases, real estate, coal leases, antiques, even a Mercedes and a Rolex, and lost them all, according to Kurt Eichenwald’s “Serpent on the Rock.”
A $180 million judgment against them pushed the Hunts into bankruptcy. All Bunker Hunt had left from his billions were a few million, a stable of racehorses and a $90 million tax bill to be paid over a 15-year period, Knight said.
In the aftermath, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) adopted new limits on the positions that speculators could amass.
Hunt lived for a quarter century after his humiliation. He was banned from trading commodities. His father’s company, Hunt Oil, born in the East Texas oil fields during the Great Depression, survived. His brother William Herbert became a billionaire all over again, investing in North Dakota shale oil.
The CFTC, in a November 2013 proposal to limit the number of contracts a single trader can hold across a variety of markets, cited the Hunts’ silver trading as an example of why such limits are necessary.