The following interview with Nelson Bunker Hunt took place last week just before the sharp drop in the price of silver to $10.85 an ounce. On Thursday the Hunt brothers had to liquidate some of their silver holdings as well as stocks and other securities they had pledged in acquiring the silver.
Bunker Hunt laughs easily as many big men do. The laugh is more easy chuckle that lasts. It comes from his big belly, but it is not a booming laugh. He contains it with his bulk and never loses control. Hunt likes to laugh when he thinks he has cleverly parried an inquiry that gets too close. The country boy with the easy drawl, a genial bear of a man, does not look or act like one of the richest men in the world.
No Mellon, no Rockefeller, no Getty is Hunt. The Texan, described by a German magazine as "Silver-finger" because of his legendary exploits in the silver market, is not intrested in building museums, cultural centers, running for office, collecting mansions, dominating the racetrack world or cutting a swathe through international society. He does not "really want to be remembered for anything."
The man who amassed silver valued somewhere between $3 billion and $6 billion treats the event as a commonplace matter. All the plain-talking multibillionaire has to say about this remarkable coup is "it was a game. It was a good investment that turned out well. It just gets more valuable. I don't have any plan. I just do the best I can."
Several days later Bunker Hunt had to eat his words. Silver dropped to $16 an ounce in New York, the price at which he was buying last fall. The cost of carrying his huge position had risen astromnomically. He is getting no income on this vast silver holding.
So Hunt flew to Paris to meet with his secret partners, the fabulously wealth Arabs he had been buying silver from. They concocted a plan to sell silver-backed bonds to European banks and pay off their bank loans that were costing at least $2 an ounce to carry for a year at present prices.
Matter-of-factness is Hunt's philosophy. He wanted to buy gold but it was illegal. So he bought silver. Then he looked into silver and decided to buy more.
There was a bit more to it. Hunt, like many other rich and conservative men, believes that the dollar is being ruined by the pile of debt owed by Uncle Sam, state governments and the Social Security system.
Matter-of-factness is what Bunker Hunt learned from his daddy, H.L. Hunt, the famous oil speculator, who became known for his financial support of right-wing causes.
Bunker Hunt learned how to deal with life from his father, "a reserved kind of fellow, not effusive." From his father he also learned "never to get really elated in victory. He took a big well calmly. Then, when times got tough, he never got depressed. He believed in streaks, good streaks and bad streaks."
For his mother, Lynda Bunker, he got his middle name (Nelson is his first name), Bunker, the one he likes to be called. And possibly his ingratiating manner, because he describes her as "marvelously ingratiating."
Still, when people ask Bunker Hunt what he's worth, he answers, the way his father did: "I don't know, and if I did know it would not mean very much," Hunt says with a smile.
Like his father, Hunt is proud that he only spends $2,000 a month for living expenses. His suit, nondescript, was bought by his wife with measurements taken by his son-in-law, even though Neiman-Marcus is a few blocks away.
His office is furnished plainly with an ugly green couch and a coffee table that is stained. Bunker Hunt thinks it's fancy and expensive. He travels coach on airplanes.
"People make too much over money. People are equating happiness to money," he says sincerely.
"My observations of rich people is that they're not very happy. Their money brings them too many problelms," says a man whose father was considered the richest man in America in 1960.
Bunker Hunt pauses when you ask him how a man with a mountain of silver, millions of acres in ranch land, 120,000 head of cattle, more throughbreds than any one alive, and oil and gas properties that can't be estimated stays happy.
"I believe in Christ. I think that keeps a person happy," says one of the chief fund-raisers for Campus Crusade for Christ, a California organization trying to raise $1 billion to spread the Gospel to college students. Hunt would like to raise 25 cents from each of four billion people rather than ask a thousand wealthy men to each give $1 million.
The biggest problem Bunker Hunt ever had was not enough to eat on a battleship during World War ii.
I couldn't eat the Navy food, and I didn't have any money in my pocket to buy candy, so I went hungry for a week," says Hunt, who is planning a trip to the Golden Door resort in a week to try to lose 30 pounds again. "I guess I'm a weak character," he says and chuckles. Clearly Hunt's weakness is food.
He laughs at his own simple jokes, too. The man who spent only six months at Southern Methodist University, the Dallas version of Harvard, says he went to the "College of Hard Knocks," where the colors were black and blue. He really thinks that's funny.
At the racetrack, one of Hunt's favorite places to relax, "Everyone is equal, under and over the turf," he says. This is the closest Hunt comes to waxing philosophic.
Still, you let your guard down with Bunker Hunt. He is a likeable fellow, not at all imposing or intimidating. He reminds one of the heavy nonathletic kids from gradeschool days with thick-lens glasses who were the object of derision and now can buy and sell the whole class a million times.
Despite his wealth, Hunt is genuinely modest about himself. He describes himself as a 'sidewalk geologist' in his early days, lucking out because oil was so easy to find. He does not look like a tough Texan, winding rubber bands around his large hands nervously. In fact, he is disarmingly quaint, a little goofy.
His idea of a night at home is to read the racing form and see how his horses are doing. He sees no movies no theater, does not go bowling, and attends few dinner parties. The last book he read was the autobiography of Paul (Bear) Bryant, the Alabama football coach. He prefers the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times.
His wife, Nancy, is known around town for her incredible cheese cakes and knowledge about the best hamburger joints in Dallas. Hunt describes her as being "almost perfect in her dietary habits and never going above 125 pounds.
Yet Hunt is a friendly man with infectious enthusiasm for a good tale, a good meal or a football game.
He has none of the color of the independent wildcatters and producers over in Midland. Maybe it's because they are making their fortunes. Bunker Hunt is only multiplying the one he inherited.
Yet his nephew, Al Hill Jr., says he is "instinctively astute. He ordered drilling rigs a year and a half before the boom in drilling. He knew to get in the deep gas play in Louisiana and Mississippi before anyone else. He found out that horseracing was less profitable than breeding, so he bought 90 percent of the breeding grounds in France."
No one recognizes Hunt on the street, and his phone number is listed. The only problem is phone calls asking for financial help, which are politely turned away. Hunt does not require bodyguards or chauffeured limousines.
You can underestimate the simple profile Hunt gives to the world. The man with the biggest pile of silver in the world did not know that American Smelting is the biggest miner of the precious metal in the U.S. He does not own many stocks.
Yet ask him about the beautiful brown horses whose portraits line his office and Hunt can quote you their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. He is impressed with lineage and breeding.
"There is a very fine line between being great and an also-ran," he says.
Bunker Hunt owns thoroughbreds, which are bred and raced all over the world, from Acqueduct on Long Island to Australia. In phlegmatic tones, Hunt recounts victories at the French Derby, the British Derby and other important races, which place him in the top strata of the world horsemen.
Hunt tries to keep track of the big races around the world. Sometimes friends call from Italy to tell him about one of his horses. So far he has not found the right horse for the Kentucky derby or the Triple Crown. This is not even a passionate goal, he has befriended George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' owner, at the track, but not Jock Whitney.
"At the race track, you are seeing people at their best," he says. "It is a chance to get away from worries."
Even though Hunt follows his horses closely, he is not a big bettor. "It is hard to make a profit racing horses because costs are rising so fast. But I had a good sale this year worth $13 million," he says.
Once early in his career as an independet producer, Hunt brought in a well in West Texas far from any others. That was his "most exciting experience."
Otherwise, no matter how hard you pry, nothing seems to excite Hunt. (Not his horses, not his silver, not his oil wells, not his cattle.
He is his father's son in that way. "No, I don't think of it as being exciting. I do things I'm interested in like ranching, horses, the oil business."
Nor is Hunt a Midas despite the silver play.
Costs are rising so fast that he is losing money on his 122,000 head of cattle.
He and his brothers bought a company, Great Western United, because they thought its sugar beet holding would rise like silver. They were wrong, and the land development operation they got had a closet full of skeletons and law suits.
When he bought into Sunshine Mining, a silver mining company, last year, his attempt at control was repulsed, and Hunt and his brothers sold there stock.
A few weeks ago, another takeover bid for Gulf Resources & Chemical was turned down. The Hunts don't like a fight with unfriendly managements. So they buckled again.
Hunt carries his political conservatism lightly. He "prefers a black conservative to a white liberal" and is supporting Oldy Smothers, a black friend who is running for a congressional seat between Dallas and Fort Worth. Hunt puts away liberals as "people who are frugal with their own money, but want the government to spend it for them. The only thing the 11 million people working for government do is produce regulations, nothing more."
He thinks Teddy Kennedy has "charisma," a term he doesn't like, but he doesn't consider Kennedy an Irishman because he is "too urbane and Eastern."
Bunker Hunt doesn't like Jimmy Carter, another old country boy, but he says: "In all fairness I don't think Superman could run the country the way it was run in the past."
So, Hunt is not optimistic about the inflation problem being solved. He would like to see the world more stable and gold retreated to $200 an ounce.
Yet he is betting that gold will rise to $1,022 an ounce by the end of 1980, and that silver will do even better than that.
"I think they got to tie paper money to something," he says. "They can't let everyone print paper money without any accoutability."