Bunker and Herbert had eased up on silver after their initial big buy in 1973, but in the fall of 1979, they were back with a vengeance. By the end of the year, Bunker and Herbert owned 21 million ounces of physical silver each. They had even larger positions in the silver futures market: Bunker was long on 45 million ounces, while Herbert held contracts for 20 million. Their little brother Lamar also had a more “modest” position.
By the new year, with every dollar increase in the price of silver, the Hunts were making $100 million on paper. But unlike most investors, when their profitable futures contracts expired, they took delivery. As in 1973, they arranged to have the metal flown to Switzerland. Intentional or not, this helped create a shortage of the metal for industrial supply.
Naturally, the industrialists were unhappy. From a spot price of around $6 per ounce in early 1979, the price of silver shot up to $50.42 in January of 1980. In the same week, silver futures contracts were trading at $46.80. Film companies like Kodak saw costs go through the roof, while the British film producer, Ilford, was forced to lay off workers. Traditional bullion dealers, caught in a squeeze, cried foul to the commodity exchanges, and the New York jewelry house Tiffany & Co. took out a full page ad in the New York Times slamming the “unconscionable” Hunt brothers. They were right to single out the Hunts; in mid-January, they controlled 69% of all the silver futures contracts on the Commodity Exchange (COMEX) in New York.
But as the high prices persisted, new silver began to come out of the woodwork.
“In the U.S., people rifled their dresser drawers and sofa cushions to find dimes and quarters with silver content and had them melted down,” says Pirrong, from the University of Houston. “Silver is a classic part of a bride’s trousseau in India, and when prices got high, women sold silver out of their trousseaus.”
According to a Washington Post article published that March, the D.C. police warned residents of a rash of home burglaries targeting silver.
Unfortunately for the Hunts, all this new supply had a predictable effect. Rather than close out their contracts, short sellers suddenly found it was easier to get their hands on new supplies of silver and deliver.
“The main factor that has caused corners to fail [throughout history] is that the manipulator has underestimated how much will be delivered to him if he succeeds [at] raising the price to artificial levels,” says Pirrong. “Eventually, the Hunts ran out of money to pay for all the silver that was thrown at them.”
In financial terms, the brothers had a large corpse on their hands—and no way to bury it.
This proved to be an especially big problem, because it wasn’t just the Hunt fortune that was on the line. Of the $6.6 billion worth of silver the Hunts held at the top of the market, the brothers had “only” spent a little over $1 billion of their own money. The rest was borrowed from over 20 banks and brokerage houses.
At the same time, COMEX decided to crack down. On January 7, 1980, the exchange’s board of governors announced that it would cap the size of silver futures exposure to 3 million ounces. Those in excess of the cap (say, by the tens of millions) were given until the following month to bring themselves into compliance. But that was too long for the Chicago Board of Trade exchange, which suspended the issue of any new silver futures on January 21. Silver futures traders would only be allowed to square up old contracts.
Predictably, silver prices began to slide. As the various banks and other firms that had backed the Hunt bullion binge began to recognize the tenuousness of their financial position, they issued margin calls, asking the brothers to put up more money as collateral for their debts. The Hunts, unable to sell silver lest they trigger a panic, borrowed even more. By early March, futures contracts had fallen to the mid-$30 range.
Matters finally came to a head on March 25, when one of the Hunts’ largest backers, the Bache Group, asked for $100 million more in collateral. The brothers were out of cash, and Bache was unwilling to accept silver in its place, as it had been doing throughout the month. With the Hunts in default, Bache did the only thing it could to start recouping its losses: it start to unload silver.
On March 27, “Silver Thursday,” the silver futures market dropped by a third to $10.80. Just two months earlier, these contracts had been trading at four times that amount.
After the oil bust of the early 1980s and a series of lawsuits polished off the remainder of the Hunt brothers’ once historic fortune, the two declared bankruptcy in 1988. Bunker, who had been worth an estimated $16 billion in the 1960s, emerged with under $10 million to his name. That’s not exactly chump change, but it wasn’t enough to maintain his 500-plus stable of horses,.
The Hunts almost dragged their lenders into bankruptcy too—and with them, a sizable chunk of the U.S. financial system. Over twenty financial institutions had extended over a billion dollars in credit to the Hunt brothers. The default and resulting collapse of silver prices blew holes in balance sheets across Wall Street. A privately orchestrated bailout loan from a number of banks allowed the brothers to start paying off their debts and keep their creditors afloat, but the markets and regulators were rattled.
Silver Spot Prices Per Ounce (January, 1979 - June, 1980)
In the words of then CFTC chief James Stone, the Hunts’ antics had threatened to punch a hole in the “financial fabric of the United States” like nothing had in decades. Writing about the entire episode a year later, Harper’s Magazine described Silver Thursday as “the first great panic since October 1929.”
The trouble was not over for the Hunts. In the following years, the brothers were dragged before Congressional hearings, got into a legal spat with their lenders, and were sued by a Peruvian mineral marketing company, which had suffered big losses in the crash. In 1988, a New York City jury found for the South American firm, levying a penalty of over $130 million against the Hunts and finding that they had deliberately conspired to corner the silver market.
Surprisingly, there is still some disagreement on that point.
Though the Hunt brothers clearly amassed a staggering amount of silver and silver derivatives at the end of the 1970s, it is impossible to prove definitively that market manipulation was in their hearts. Maybe, as the Hunts always claimed, they just reallybelieved in the enduring value of silver.
Or maybe, as others have noted, the Hunt brothers had no idea what they were doing. Call it the stupidity defense.
“They’re terribly unsophisticated,” an anonymous associated was quoted as saying of the Hunts in a Chicago Tribune article from 1989. “They make all the mistakes most other people make,” said another.
When the Hunts were dragged before the CFTC a few months after the crash, Commissioner David G. Gartner wondered out loud: “Do you think there’s any possibility that the Hunts are just having fun, just horsing around?”
In their civil trial against the South American mineral firm, the Hunt brothers’ decision to begin accepting delivery on their enormous holdings in silver futures was considered a red flag. A market participant would only take the actual metal, rather than cash in on highly profitable futures contracts, if their plan was to remove the bullion from circulation and artificially inflate the price. That decision, it was argued, was consistent with market manipulation.
But one could argue that it is also consistent with having an irrational fixation on shiny metal and way more money than sense.
In his New York Times obituary in 2014, it was reported that towards the end of his life, Bunker Hunt had scrounged up enough to start buying horses again.
“I don’t know really know anything,” said Bunker, offering a synopsis of his horse trading strategy that could have just as easily applied to his entire career as an investor. “I am just trying to win a few races.”
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