Every dentist and dairy farmer has a personal corporation these days. Money market funds, IRA plans and NOW accounts tangle the finances of families that once kept track of their money with check stubs and a looseleaf budget book.
But the increasingly complicated family finances of middle class Americans pale by comparison with the ingrown thicket of trusts, corporations and partnerships that manage the money of the nation's richest family -- the multi-billionaire Hunts of Texas.
How the Hunts control their capital was explored last week for the first time by federal investigators probing the collapse of the silver market in 1980.
In researching the part played by the Hunt family in the silver crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission first had to map the maze of more than 150 separate entities that controls the Hunt fortune.
So many Hunt family members, companies and trust funds were involved in the silver market that the SEC needed a four-color, fold-out diagram just to show the connections.
The SEC investigators found the structure of the nation's richest family fortune to be as complex as a DNA molecule, a veritible double helix of Hunts.
Two interlocking chains of trust funds assure that future generations will inherit the vast wealth that originated with wildcat oil driller Haroldson Layfayette Hunt.
One set of trusts was established in 1935 by H.L. Hunt to provide income to six of his children; another set of trusts formed in 1955 by his first wife, Lyda Bunker Hunt, takes care of the grandchildren.
Though only a preface to the SEC's silver market study, the report on Hunt family finances provides the most detailed view ever of the inner workings of the fabulously wealthy and arduously secretive Texas clan. Hunt family members, who accused the SEC of violating their right to financial privacy and went to court to try to limit the government investigation, aren't commenting on the exposure of their family table of organization.
The late H.L. Hunt was frequently ranked as the richest person in America and even spread among three families and two generations, the dynasty he founded remains unchallenged as the wealthiest in the nation. Forbes magazine recently catalogued the 400 most affluent people in the United States and ranked five of H.L. Hunt's children among the dozen richest Americans.
Nelson Bunker Hunt, W. Herbert Hunt, Lamar Hunt, Caroline Hunt Schoelkopf and Margaret Hunt Hill all are billionaires by Forbes' estimate. Even their brother Hassie, who has been hospitalized for years and not active in business, is rich as a Rockefeller with assets estimated at $600 million.
But the family members lost hundreds of millions of dollars -- at least on paper -- when silver prices plunged from $50 an ounce to the $10 range and oil prices dropped drastically, the government investigators noted.
By the SEC's accounting, Herbert and Lamar Hunt might not even be billionaires any more, and Bunker's personal net worth has declined from an estimated $2.9 billion to $1.2 billion.
When the three brothers negotiated a $1.1 billion loan through the family-owned Placid Oil Co. to refinance their silver debts two years, Herbert's assets were valued at $1.38 billion and his debts at $591.5 million. "Herbert's estimated net worth appears to be approximately $320 million rather than the $790 million calculated in connection with the Placid loan," the SEC reported this week. Lamar's personal net worth, the agency estimated, may be no more than $137 million, including his football team, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Those figures, however, count only personal assets. Much of the family fortune is in trust funds which provide income for family members who do not have access to the principal of the trust.
The SEC noted that brothers Bunker and Herbert collected income totaling $41.65 million in 1978 and 1979 from their two trusts, which are part of a cluster of similar trusts for the other brothers and sisters.
That group of trust funds owns the family's biggest business, Placid Oil Co. The trusts for Bunker, Herbert and Lamar own a little more than 63 percent of Placid, the SEC said. The brothers' stake in Placid Oil is valued at $386 million based on the original investment in the firm, but that figure substantially understates the value of the company, the SEC noted. Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. estimated in 1980 that the brothers' Placid holdings were worth $1.9 billion. The investments held by the Placid trusts will ultimately go to H.L. Hunt's grandchildren.
The second big group of trusts set up for the grandchildren by Lyda Bunker Hunt make members of the family dependent on each other. Bunker Hunt's children, for example, receive income from a trust for which their uncle Herbert is trustee. Herbert's children in turn are beneficiaries of a trust for which Lamar Hunt is trustee.
Because the SEC explored only the Hunt interests involved in the silver market, the road map of Hunt holdings leaves several chunks of uncharted territory involving family members who did not invest in silver. Congressional investigators a year ago assembled information indicating a similar pattern of interlocking trusts among other family members.
The trusts for the children of Bunker and Herbert are just two of five grandchildren trusts which own the family's second big petroleum firm -- Hunt Energy Corp. -- through a holding company called Hunt Industries.
Though it is active in the oil and gas business, Hunt Energy's principal role is as the management company that provides bookkeeping and accounting services for most of the family's corporations, partnerships, trusts, joint ventures and foundations.
The complexity of the interconnections between family members has grown as the trusts invested in new ventures. The trusts for the children of Bunker and Herbert Hunt each own a 50 percent stake in Planet Investment Corp., which in turn owns Hunt International Resources Co.
HIRCO, as that company is known, is also in the oil and gas business, but its holdings include the Shakey's Pizza Parlor chain and Great Western sugar. HIRCO was once a publicly-owned firm, Great Western United Corp. Bunker and Herbert bought a majority interest in Great Western in 1974 from other stockholders. Five years later, the brothers sold their Great Western stock to Planet investing, which then bought out the remaining public shareholders.
As with many Hunt enterprises, determining who really has control over HIRCO depends on which door you look behind. Bunker Hunt is chairman of the board, but the trusts that own HIRCO are run by his brothers Herbert and Lamar and all the income from HIRCO flows to the children of Bunker and Herbert.
The trusts for Bunker and Herbert's children own yet another family corporation, Profit Investment Co., a Delaware corporation which was one of the major vehicles for investing in silver. Profit Investment owns 50 percent of International Metals Investment Co., Ltd., a Bermuda corporation whose remaining shares were held by two Saudi Arabian silver speculators.
The third generation of Hunts is already creating its own network of companies, the SEC study indicates. Herbert Hunt's children directly own Hunt Holdings, which does business as Pentad Resources Inc.
Pentad is among several similarly named Hunt corporations whose common denominator not even the SEC has been able to interpret. Pentad Resources, Planet Investment, Profit Investment, Placid Oil, Penrod Drilling. Six-letter names begining with "P" possess some symbol that remains one of the Hunt family secrets.