A New York jewelry maker has sued the Hunt brothers of Texas, accusing them of trying to corner the market in silver and drive up the price.
The lawsuit charges the Hunts not only bought and hoaraded 100 million ounces of silver -- worth $5 billion at peak prices -- but also fed the silver fever with public predictions of still higher prices.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan against Nelson Bunker Hunt and W. Herbert Hunt by Wander & Co., a manufacturer of silver jewelry.
Wander asked the courts to declare the case a class action against the Hunts on behalf of all commercial and industrial users of silver.
The Hunts "devised a plan and scheme" to inflate silver prices starting in January 1979, the Wander suit claims. The company charges the Hunts intended "to aggravate the world's shortage of silver and drive up the price."
At least two other legal battles are shaping up over the collapse of the silver speculation bubble.
Chicago Attorney William Marutsky said yesterday he has filed lawsuits against the New York Commodity Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade -- the two silver futures markets -- over steps they took to regulate silver trading.
A Salem, Mass., silver speculator, Brian T. Walsh, said he is attempting to organize a group called Free Market Compensation to file a similar complaint against the two silver exchanges and the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
In another development, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) asked the Senate Banking Committee to look into the silver scandal and recommend remedies.
"Recent wild fluctuations of commodiity prices and their spillover into other financial markets raise serious questions about the impact of commodity speculation on inflation and the stability of our financial system," Byrd said in a letter to Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.).
"I have no sympathy for large speculators who have lost paper profits which were generated by running up silver prices," Byrd added. "However, I am concerned about the small investor who is lured into the market by what appears to be a lack of adequate controls on speculation."'
Proxmire told Byrd he would schedule banking committee hearings next month because he was concerned that "unrestricted commodity speculation can have a severe effect on inflation and our financial system and on the securities industry.
"I am considering legislation to permit the Federal Reserve Board to extend its margin requirements to commodity contracts and to authorize the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate futures contracts in financial instruments or in commodities with monetary characteristics, such as gold or silver," Proxmire said.
All futures trading is regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has been criticized by the SEC and other agencies for not heading off the silver crisis.
Commodity margin requirements -- the amount an investor must put up to buy a contract for future delivery -- are set by the exchanges without government regulation.
The Federal Reserve, which sets margins for buying stock, demands a 50 percent down payment.
For most commodities the margin is a fixed dollar amount, usually less than 5 percent of the value of the commodity being purchased.
When silver prices began to soar last fall, the exchanges boosted margin requirements to discourage speculation. By January, the Comex required a $50,000 margin for big investors.
Raising the margin requirements and other anti-speculative moves are being challenged by the Chicago and Boston groups, representing investors who bought contracts for silver and were counting on prices to rise.
They contend the actions prevented them from making the profits they would have been able to make, had not the rules of the game been changed.
The New York lawsuit, on the other hand, accuses the Hunts of inflating prices, to the detriment of silver users and others who would benefit from low prices.
Wander & Co. says the Hunts bought contracts for future delivery and when they fell due, demanded the silver rather than settling for cash, as most commodity speculators do.
The Hunts then used the silver as collateral to borrow more money and buy more silver.