Money - Then and Now
Back in the 1980's some of you may remember that a Texas oil dynasty tried to buy a little silver in between their oil deals. The tale of H.L. Hunt and his family (at one time possibly the richest family in the US) is the stuff of legends in the South. While this is the story of the silver deals of the sons of the 1st family a little family background makes for a better story.
Mr. H.L. Hunt was born in Illinois where his father moved after the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression as we like to call it) to escape the hardships of reconstruction. H.L.'s father was becoming quite prosperous in Illinois but H.L. hit the road and traveled out West at about age 16. He worked as a dishwasher, a mule team driver, a logger, a farm worker, tried out for semi-pro baseball, poured concrete on a construction crew but most of all gambled at cards. H.L.'s father died when he was 22 years old. He went home, collected his inheritance and shortly thereafter moved to Southeast Arkansas to try his luck with cotton farming. The Lake Village, Arkansas days turned from farming to land speculation and more gambling. He met and married his first wife there, Lyda Bunker. Shortly afterwards news of the Smackover Oilfield in nearby El Dorado, Arkansas reached Lake Village and H.L. promptly took advantage of the boom times. As soon as he got off the train and looked around he told his companions, "All I need is a deck of cards and some poker chips". H.L. made money gambling at cards and eventually started drilling for oil. His first well was successful. He eventually moved his wife Lyda and small family to El Dorado and began building up his "poor boy" drilling company. Always the gambler, H.L. was never afraid to "push all his chips out on the table at once". In 1925 the boom times in El Dorado were winding down, H.L. sold all his production and traveled to Florida to try his luck in the current real estate boom. There he met and married his second wife, Frania Tye (yes he was still married to his first). She married his as "Franklin" Hunt. H.L. and Frania honeymooned in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and then set up residence in Shreveport, Louisiana and began a family there. He shuttled back and forth between both families in El Dorado and Shreveport providing for them both. He opened an oil office in El Dorado and operated out of the Washington -Youree hotel in Shreveport. On any given day over 100 oil men operated in the great marble lobby of the Washington-Youree hotel swapping oil leases, making drilling deals and spreading rumors. H.L. was finally in his element working the oil fields of South Arkansas and North Louisiana with Jick Justiss, Charlie Hardin and Old Man Bailey. In 1930 H.L. moved his second family to Dallas while his first family remained in El Dorado (both of them were still growing in numbers at the time). Then the most significant financial event of his life occurred when a friend from El Dorado passed along some inside information about a little test well in East Texas. Before it was all over H.L. became a leading independent producer in the largest oilfield ever found to date, the great East Texas oilfield near Kilgore, TX. During the great depression this area of the country never suffered. It was the biggest boom of all the oil booms to date. Oil was selling at over $1.00/bbl and fell to $.15/bbl after the field was discovered and brought on line because of the oversupply that it created. H.L. entered his East Texas deal at a time he was short on cash. With a haberdasher bachelor friend from El Dorado H.L. sold a 20% interest to for $30,000 - H.L. proceeded to close one of the biggest oil deals in history without any of his own money. He paid for the deal with production from the very field he purchased. He tried to borrow money from the Shreveport banks to develop his East Texas leases but they would not loan money on in ground reserves. He then went to the First National Bank in Dallas and obtained the needed loans to drill and bring his production on line. A banking relationship for the next 50 years was cemented in Dallas that day. Hunt was dogged for years in and out of court in East Texas by Dad Joiner and others who claimed H.L. cheated them out of their leases but when it was all over H.L. came out on top. He moved his first family to Tyler, TX for a few years and then moved them onto Dallas. Shortly thereafter H.L.'s notoriety revealed to Frania that Franklin Hunt was indeed H.L. Hunt. The relationship broke up and H.L. set up trusts for his children with Frania and agreed to provide for Frania as well. H.L. continued to prosper and build his oil empire. He also moved into the food and cosmetic industry with disastrous results. I remember personally meeting him at the Louisiana State Fair where he was hawking his HL food products in the 1960's. In 1955 his first wife, Lyda died. Shortly thereafter he married his third wife, Ruth Ray with whom he already had 4 children with while still married to Lyda. (In all, he had 15 children with these 3 women.) While Ruth tried to bring everyone together, there were hard feelings between the three separate families of H.L. Of these children our story starts with the 3 youngest children from the first family, Bunker, Herbert and Lamar along with a brother in law, Randy Kreiling, from the third family.
The eldest Hunt son was Hassie. He amassed quite a fortune on his own before he was 25 years old in the oil business after a falling out with his father. Through a strange and terrible twist, Hassie developed a mental condition that eventually led to a frontal lobotomy and his incapacitation early in life. Ironically his personal oil business that he started continued to grow and prosper even after his incapacitation into a rather large business in its own right.
Bunker, being the next oldest male child fell heir to the kingdom. Bunker, Herbert and Lamar owned and operated Penrod Drilling Company. All six of the first family children owned Placid Oil Company. Hunt Oil was owned by H.L. himself (later it was parceled out to his 14 surviving children). Bunker started out by drilling a string of dry holes in Pakistan losing over $11 million dollars. He then went head to head against the major oil companies and bid on leases in Libya. He obtained tracts #2 and #65. By then he was in such financial straits as a result of his dry holes that he sold a ½ interest in tract #65 to BP. In 1961 the largest oilfield in Africa to date was discovered on tract #65. Bunker's ½ interest was valued at about $7 billion dollars making him the richest private individual in the world at age 35. He was also a little short on cash and had to borrow $5 million from H.L. to hold him over until he could get his production in Libya on line. While Bunker was out on his own, Herbert ran Hunt Oil and quietly built up the company's oil reserves as well as invested in real estate North of Dallas during the 1960's. At the same time Lamar was organizing the AFL and his Kansas City Chiefs.
During the 1970's Bunker was still the heavy hitter betting on one big business deal after another including oil, real estate (5 million acres throughout the world), cattle, sugar and pizza parlors. His Libyan oil leases in the late 1960's and early 1970's were bringing in $30 million/year in revenues (even at $3/bbl). In 1970 when silver was at $1.50/oz Bunker decided to invest there as well. At that time it was illegal for US citizens to own gold so silver was a natural second choice. Inflation was starting to gain steam, Vietnam was causing doubts about our government and riots in our country, the Middle East was a powder keg and Libya (along with his valuable oil field) was in transition. Bunker personally believed that the worldwide situation was going to get worse and as a result decided to hedge his assets. But with the usual Hunt flair for "pushing all the chips out on the table" it did not take long for a hedge to become a very large position. Between 1970 and 1973 Bunker and Herbert purchased 200,000 oz or so and saw their silver increase from $1.50/oz to $3.00/oz.
At the same time Col. Qaddafi in Libya shut out BP and then nationalized Bunker's wells. The major oil companies soon afterwards caved in. The first to break with the major oil companies was Armand Hammer at Occidental Petroleum when he gave into Qaddafi's demands for a 51% royalty payment. After Hammer the other major oil companies lined up and gave in as well. The results were an empowerment over the major oil companies the middle east countries had never before experienced that emboldened them to form OPEC and embargo oil in 1973.
Bunker grew angry at the State Department's lack of support for his lost Libyan oil field. He had hired John Connally to help negotiate with the Libyan but without any success. He blamed the big oil companies for using him as a sacrificial lamb in Libya and then hanging him out to dry on his own. At the head of the major oil companies were the Hunts arch enemies, the Rockefellers. Bunker felt that the Washington - New York Eastern establishment was being led down the road to socialism by the Rockefellers.
With inflation eating at his Libyan profits and no more to come Bunker started buying silver in a big way with his brother Herbert. In 1973 they started buying and by early 1974 they had accumulated silver contracts totaling 55 million oz or about 8% of the world's silver supply at that time. The brothers then took delivery of all 55 million oz of silver. Bunker was concerned about government confiscation of his silver. He could not bring it to Texas without paying a 5% franchise tax to the State. The brothers decided to pick up the silver and drop it off in Switzerland for safekeeping.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (the Circle K Ranch in Texas) brother in law Randy Kreiling and his brother Tilmon held a shooting contest amongst the cowboys to find the best marksmen. The dozen best marksmen were hired for a special assignment to ride shotgun on one of the largest private silver transfers in history. The Circle K cowboys flew on 3 specially chartered 707 jets to Chicago and New York where they were met by a convoy of armored trucks during the middle of the night. Forty million oz of silver was loaded onto the planes and they immediately flew to Zurich where they were met by another convoy of armored trucks. The cowboys loaded the trucks and silver was dispersed to six different storage locations in Switzerland. The transfer cost Bunker and Herbert $200,000. The storage costs for the 40 million oz in Switzerland and the 15 million oz still in the US amounted to $3 million/year.
By the spring of 1974 silver rose to over $6/oz and rumors were flying that the Hunts were trying to corner the silver market. At the time annual production was 245 million oz and annual demand was 450 million oz. The Hunt brothers had just taken delivery of 55 million oz. The big question was how much silver was out in private hands? Of the estimated 700 million ounces of silver only about 200 million ounces was available for delivery against futures contracts. That same Spring Bunker appeared on the floor of COMEX in New York for the first time and declared that "almost anything is better than paper money" and "any fool can run a printing press". The silver market dropped down to the $3 to $4 range after that but Bunker and Herbert just held on and worked other deals. Herbert's real estate deals in North Dallas paid off handsomely during the 1970's while Bunker's racehorse business did well. Penrod Drilling was expanding all over the world and quickly moving to offshore rigs. Hunt Oil's other holdings were also buoyed as the worldwide price of oil escalated. Then in 1974 at the age of 85 H.L. Hunt died.
In March of 1975, Bunker Hunt flew to Tehran to meet the shah's brother about purchasing silver. Bunker and Herbert still had their 55 million oz of silver and the price was wallowing around $4/oz. In spite of the fact that the boys were a little short on cash at the time Bunker felt that if he and Herbert could take on a partner to resume purchases of silver the price would rocket upwards. He met with the Iranian finance minister and suggested that the Pahlevi family invest in several million oz of silver. The finance minister was not familiar with Bunker and asked him how much money he made last year. Bunker hesitated (he always felt it was unlucky to count your money - he also felt that anyone who knew how much he was worth wasn't worth much) because as a private individual he was always downplaying his income as much as possible for tax purposes. He finally said somewhere around 50 million dollars. Bunkers hesitation put off the minister and the deal never went through.
Not to be discouraged, Bunker set up a meeting with King Faisal of Saudi Arabian in mid April. In late March the King was assassinated by his nephew.
In the fall of 1976 Bunker and Herbert took delivery of 20 million oz of silver through a public company they controlled called Great Western United. Great Western was part of the HLH foods division and mainly dealt in sugar and sugar futures. The brothers quickly devised a swap where Great Western would trade 20 million oz of silver to the Philippines for sugar for their refineries; the Philippines would then trade the silver to the Saudis for oil. Herbert flew to the Philippines and worked out the deal with President Marcos but at the last minute the IMF killed the deal. The IMF would not recognize the silver as an asset of the Philippine government and would refuse other loans as a result. The deal fell through and the brothers sold the 20 million oz of silver the next year. Once again Bunker felt thwarted by the Eastern establishment.
In the spring of 1977 the brothers attempted a take over of the largest silver mine in the US, the Sunshine Mine, through Great Western United. They successfully acquired 28% if the stock with an option to purchase the balance at a later date.
The brothers then turned to another commodities play and invested in soybeans. They were a little short on cash again so they used their silver as collateral. As usual the brothers went into the market in a big way. The legal limit for a single investor is 3 million bushels. The brothers brought in family members and had a total stake of 22 million bushels. The CFTC cried foul and filed suit against the Hunts. The Hunts claimed that other large families did the same thing to get around the 3 million-bushel limit but since the Hunts were conservatives and were not part of the Eastern liberal crowd they were being unfairly targeted. After the smoke cleared they still made $40 million dollars profit on their soybean futures. They were fast gaining a reputation of playing fast and loose with the rules concerning commodities trading.
By the late 1970's the Hunt first family's fortune was estimated to be in the range of 6 to 8 billion dollars. In 1978 John Connally introduced Bunker to a Saudi sheik at the Mayflower hotel in Washington. A year later International Metal Investment was incorporated in Bermuda between Bunker, Herbert and two Saudi sheiks. It was speculated that the two sheiks were fronting for members of the Saudi royal family.
In early 1979 the price of silver steadily rose to $8/oz and the Sunshine Mine deal fell apart. The stockholders demanded more money for the balance of the purchase since the mine was now worth more due to the increase in silver. The Hunt's tender offer failed and they sold their interest back to the management trust.
In the summer of 1979 the Hunt brothers started buying silver through the International Metal Investment group along with their Saudi partners. Over 43 million oz of silver contracts were purchased through the COMEX and the CBOT with delivery to be taken that fall. In the fall of 1979 the silver price doubled from $8 to $16/oz in only two months. Other syndicates with big money behind them started buying silver. The COMEX and the CBOT started to panic. In late 1979 the warehouses of the two exchanges only held 120 million oz of silver and that amount was traded in October alone. Many people, including the Hunts through their International Metal Investment group were taking delivery on all their contracts! The Hunts moved another 9 million oz of silver to Europe through a silver swap (no cowboys riding shotgun this time). The brothers were starting to fear another confiscation by the US government (FDR style) since things were coming to a head. Late in 1979 the CBOT changed the rules and stated that no investor could hold over 3 million oz of silver contracts and the margin requirement were raised. All contracts over 3 million oz per trader must be liquidated by February of 1980. Bunker accused the COMEX and CBOT board members of having a financial interest in the silver market themselves. Investigations later found that many had substantial silver short positions. Bunker knew that a shortage now existed or they would not be screaming so loudly. He bought even more. The price on the last day of 1979 was $34.45/oz. At this point Bunker and Herbert held 40 million oz in Switzerland and 90 million oz of bullion they jointly owned through International Metals. In addition to all that, International Metals had contracts on another 90 million oz due for delivery that March from the COMEX. The younger brother, Lamar had even entered the arena and had taken a $300 million dollar silver position by the end of 1979.
Finally on January 7th of 1980 the COMEX changed their rules to only allow 10 million/oz of contracts per trader and that all contracts over that amount must be liquidated before February 18th. . The CFTC promptly backed up the ruling. On January 17th silver hit $50/oz, Bunker had continued to buy. At that point in time the Hunt's silver position was worth $4.5 billion dollars bringing their profits in silver to $3.5 billion dollars. On January 21st the COMEX announced that it was suspending trading in silver. They would only accept liquidation orders. Silver dropped $10/oz and stayed around $39/oz until the end of January. Scrap silver, old silver coin collections and silverware came into the market - about 22 million oz in all. In early February the Hunt group took delivery of another 26 million oz from Chicago. The Hunt's North Sea oil through Placid Oil was coming on line and generating $200 million /year from that venture alone. There was talk of a takeover of Texaco Oil. Bunker was also talking to other Middle Eastern rulers about putting together another silver buying group.
By March 14th silver was down to $21/oz. Volker had raised interest rates and the dollar had firmed up (this also made borrowing to speculate on silver more expensive). International Metals still held 60 million oz of futures contracts. Their margin calls on those contracts amounted to $10 million dollars a day! Bunker still believed the price would go back up if only he could promote more buying. He scrambled around Europe looking for a buying partner but the more the price dropped the harder it was to borrow more money against his silver holdings to buy even more silver to hold up the price. Finally on March 25th of 1980 the Hunt brothers ran out of cash. Bunker called Herbert and simply said, "Shut it down". Herbert promptly told his broker the following morning that they could not meet their $135 million dollar margin call that day.
The Hunt's brokers promptly sold $100 million dollars worth of silver that day. Their account only had $90 million dollars worth of equity and they were expected to loose all that the next day. The CFTC chairman, Chairman of the Federal Reserve and US Treasury Secretary began an around the clock silver monitoring session.
On March 27th (silver Thursday) silver opened at $15.80 and closed at $10.80. The stock market crashed on rumors of Hunt liquidations of stocks to cover his silver losses and then rallied to close at about the same level. The next day silver rallied back up to $12/oz. The Hunt's bullion purchases were all averaged around $10/oz but their futures contracts were purchased at or about $35/oz. When it was all over they owed $1.5 billion dollars.
Fed Chairman Volker gave approval for a bailout plan for the brothers fearing a financial disaster. A group of banks agreed to loan the brothers 1.1 billion dollars. The family had to put up 8 billion in collateral with the banks. The brother's older sister, Margaret finally put her foot down after the silver collapse and demanded to know just what Bunker had intended to accomplish? Bunker sheepishly replied, "I was just trying to make some money".
After the smoke cleared it appeared that the drama was not just a one sided manipulation by the Hunts. The shorts and the Eastern establishment had just as much at stake as the Hunts. By the mid 1980's silver was bumping $17/oz again. Shortly thereafter, Reagan came into the presidency and a new optimism gripped the country.
In 1988 Bunker filed for personal bankruptcy. In 1989 he left bankruptcy with a net worth of $5 to 10 million dollars and a debt to the IRS of $90 million dollars to be repaid in 15 years. Bunker's trusts, set up by his father H.L. Hunt, are currently valued at $200 million dollars. Last year the payments to the IRS finally stopped.
Protect yourself and invest and save in real money instead of our current unlawful fiat. Invest at least 10% of your assets in bullion and take possession - DO NOT BUY SILVER FUTURES CONTRACTS ON MARGIN. THE BIG SHORTS ARE STILL OUT THERE AND WAITING TO HAVE THOSE FOOLISH SILVER BULLS FOR LUNCH FROM TIME TO TIME. THE ONLY WAY TO WIN IS TO PAY IN FULL AND TAKE POSSESSION. It is a game that even the richest men in the world sometimes lose.
Larry and his wife Puddy both live in the South with their two almost grown children and Haley the wonder dog. Larry manages the family drilling company and also sells gold and silver through Silver Trading Company at www.silvertrading.net. Please send your thoughts or comments to Llaborde@cdswater.com
Please note that I am no means a financial advisor and all investments should only be made after performing your own due diligence.
26 January 2004