Nelson Bunker Hunt, the son of a legendary Texas oilman, exceeded his father through colossal investments in oil, silver, real estate, sugar beets, and his passion, thoroughbred horses.
He took great risks in business and weathered spectacular financial setbacks, but one investment’s lustre never dimmed – spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Once one of the world’s richest men, Bunker Hunt graduated to his eternal reward October 21 due to complications of congestive heart failure. He was 88.
‘He came out of a godly home,’ says Dr Pete Deison, associate pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Reverend Deison knew Hunt and his family for 40 years and delivered the eulogy at his memorial service. ‘His mother taught him the Bible and he was memorising verses as a child.’
Discerning spiritually, even when a child
Hunt had remarkable discernment about spiritual things, even as a child. After the family moved from Tyler to Dallas when Hunt was 11, they began attending a different church. ‘They don’t teach the Bible like they did at our old church,’ he informed his mother, matter-of-factly.
Similar to many Christians who discover their faith as children, he could not pinpoint his conversion. ‘He didn’t remember a specific time or a great moment coming to Christ. He grew up with it and grew into it,’ Pastor Deison notes.
At only 22 he discovered a US$7 million oil field in Scurry County, Texas. After a few years, he left his father’s company and launched his own oil venture.
In 1961, Hunt and British Petroleum found a massive oil field in Libya – one of the biggest in Africa — holding about 5.5 billion barrels of crude oil. That field was eventually yielding $30 million a year to Hunt, according to the Dallas Morning News.
His passion for horses began with the purchase of eight yearling thoroughbreds in 1955. Over the next 30 years, he collected 300 broodmares and breeding shares in more than a dozen top stallions. Hunt owned the first filly in history to win $1.5 million. He personally owned 8,000 acres of Kentucky horse farms and 2,500 square miles of Australian grazing land. And he founded the Breeder’s Cup, because he wanted to provide a way for older horses to keep running and earn income.
Despite the enormous wealth God entrusted to him, he lived modestly. ‘He never flew first class, always coach,’ recalls Dr Deison. ‘He drove an older car and wore average clothes, suits, nothing fancy. If you were in his office at five at night, it didn’t matter who you were, he would say, “Why don’t you come home to dinner with me.” He brought home many missionaries and people in Christian ministry. His wife Caroline learned to always be ready with extra food.’
Caroline & Bunker, 1972 (Larry Provart/Dallas Morning News)
JESUS film investment
One of Hunt’s first major financial setbacks came when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gained control over Libya and went on to nationalize the oil fields in 1973. Hunt’s $30 million income stream vanished in the shifting sands of Middle East politics.
But he affirmed many years later that his greatest investment was in kingdom work. Due to his close friendship with Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, Hunt was one of the first to learn about Bright’s plans for the JESUS film.
More than 200 million people throughout the world have received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour as a result of watching the film.
‘When Bill had first mentioned the idea to him, Bunker Hunt gave all the beginning money – millions of dollars – to get it developed. He saw the long-range possibilities,’ Rev. Deison notes, adding that Hunt had told him, “The best investment I ever made was the JESUS film. ‘It cost me 11 cents a soul.”’
When inflation began to take off in the early ‘70s, Bunker Hunt and his younger brother, Herbert, began investing in silver as an inflation hedge at $1.50 an ounce. During this time, private citizens couldn’t legally hold gold. Over the next 10 years, the brothers accumulated some $4.5 billion in the precious metal. News reports alleged the Hunts were trying to corner the market in silver. But some observers disagree with that characterisation.
‘Their behaviour was not typical of that of “cornerers”,’ wrote Alan Trustman in the September 1980‘s Atlantic Magazine. ‘In the first place, they told everybody who would listen what they were doing; they were big, big buyers and intended to buy more and more. A cornerer operates in secret until he owns substantially the entire available supply, and then he squeezes the surprised innocents who have sold short and must buy in higher.
‘In the second place, the Hunts never tried to squeeze anyone. They took their deliveries slowly, over many months, even accepted in settlement of some of their contracts non-certified silver not on deposit with the exchanges, and gracefully rolled the bulk of their futures forward into later and later months so as not to squeeze the sellers.’
Disturbed by the Hunt brothers’ silver buying, regulators suddenly changed the rules that govern trading on commodity exchanges. The number of silver contracts each person could own was restricted. They raised margin requirements for long-term investors, but not for short-term buyers.
They barred opening transactions; only closing transactions were allowed. This forced the Hunts into margin calls, while the insiders who held short positions (betting the price would go down) could wait to profit from the Hunts’ forced sales.
Then the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, which made it difficult for the Hunt brothers to meet the interest payments on their margin debt. The Federal Reserve also issued a mandate to banks: Stop issuing loans for ‘speculative activity.’ Some believe the dictate was aimed squarely at the Hunts.
On March 25, 1980, the regulatory changes resulted in a $135 million margin call on the brothers’ positions and the Hunts struggled to cover an estimated $1.7 billion in losses. Two days later, ‘Silver Thursday,’ the metal’s price dropped 50 percent to close at $10.80 an ounce. Panic spread throughout international financial markets. The tragic irony is the Hunts were blamed for the entire fiasco by those who profited from their losses.
Bunker Hunt finally declared bankruptcy in 1988, listing $500 million in debts and $100 million in assets. It was the largest personal bankruptcy in American history. As part of the liquidation proceedings, he was forced to sell 580 of his beloved horses for $46.9 million.
‘He didn’t lose his wealth. It was stolen,’ charges Patrick Henry Booth, his long-time friend. ‘The media makes it look like he gambled and lost it, but that’s not true.’
Dr Deison agrees with Booth’s assessment. ‘There was not a dishonest bone in his body,’ he says. ‘The Hunts were men of integrity. They never did anything illegal. It didn’t change Bunker. The way the world is, when a man has a lot of money people like to see his downfall.’
Quiet mover and shaker
Hunt eventually recovered from the bankruptcy. His share of a family trust grew to an estimated $200 million. He began to invest in horses again, buying 51 juveniles and yearlings.
But Nelson Bunker Hunt also continued to invest in God’s kingdom. ‘He supported many, many Christian organisations that no one knows anything about,’ Rev. Deison says.
Hunt was one of the founding members of Park Cities Presbyterian Church and acted as an elder there. He also served as president of the Texas Bible Society.
He was one of the first to recognise the value of short-term mission trips, funding programs designed for young people to catch the vision for mission service.
‘He was a quiet man, but a mover and shaker behind the scenes,’ Rev. Deison says. ‘Money was never an end in itself. He had a vision for things and saw ideas long before other people did. He knew he was a blessed man and the money was part of his purpose for being on this earth.’
He added, ‘Bunker was the right man God raised up for his times, a visionary man, willing to take risks.’