This Week in Financial History: Bre-X, Silver Thursday And Adelphia

By Andrew Beattie | March 21, 2010 AAA

It's hard to turn a page in a history of Wall Street without finding a scandal somewhere. This week saw three of the largest scandals within the last 30 years. Read on to find out what significant financial events of the past occurred this week.

In Pictures: Biggest Stock Scams

Writing on the Wall
With healthcare, taxes and inflation looming large in everyone's mind, there are some interesting parallels this week. On March 22, 1765, Britain passed the Stamp Act. This relatively minor tax threw the colonies in to revolt and led to the U.S. being founded on anti-taxation principles. This vehement hatred of taxes has been diluted over the centuries, with the U.S. adding more and more taxes as the years have gone on.

On March 23, 2004, the Bush administration reported that the Medicare Trust Fund would run out of money in 2019. This was seven years earlier than previously projected in 2003. Since then, things have not improved. Both government spending on medicine and private medical spending have, like taxes, continued their relentless upward rise. (Learn more about personal medical spending in Steering Clear Of Medical Debt.)

Tunneling Out Adelphia
On March 24, 2002, Adelphia Communications announced that the founders of the company, the Rigas family, took out $2.3 billion in unreported loans from the company. In addition to the loans, many of the company's purchases, office furniture to car leases, were made from businesses owned by Rigas family members. Many of these purchases struck the shareholders as overpriced, meaning the Rigas family was milking wealth out of their own company for personal gain.

Earnings had to be restated three years back and the controversy forced John Rigas to step down as CEO. The stock plunged 18% and the company simultaneously filed for bankruptcy protection. The Nasdaq delisted Adelphia and the firm was running out of cash to meet its debt obligations while still covering operating expenses. Adelphia was allowed to refinance under a Chapter 11 arrangement called debtor In possession (DIP), but the SEC filed formal charges against John Rigas and the other family members involved. (There's a lot to learn from these types of scams. For more read 5 Lessons From The World's Biggest Bankruptcies.)

All That Glitters …
March was a very bad month for Bre-X investors. On the March 19, 1997, the company's geologist, Michael de Guzman, mysteriously plunged to his death from a helicopter over an Indonesian jungle. If that wasn't shocking enough, on the 26th, investors were rocked again when due-diligence testing revealed that the Busang mine the company was touting contained very little gold.

The samples had been heavily salted to make it appear like it was the find of a lifetime. The former penny stock reached a market cap of $6 billion, or over $150 adjusting for splits. After the news broke it dropped down to $2.50 and then was delisted after it fell below a dollar. Many investors, including pension funds, lost millions of dollars.

Silver Thursday
On March 27, 1980, one of the largest commodities corners in history fell apart. The Hunt brothers, sons of the oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, used their family fortune to purchase vast quantities of silver, and control even more silver via long futures contracts. Their buying pushed silver from $4 to $50 an ounce, controlling a $4.5 billion position. The government stepped in and changed the rules for long contracts in silver futures, preventing the Hunts from increasing their position. Silver began sliding down from $50 to the low $20s.

The leverage and loans on the Hunts' corner took its toll. On the 27th, the Hunts failed to meet a margin call on their silver futures. As the brothers controlled two thirds of the silver market, the news caused a panic now known as Silver Thursday. Silver plunged from $15 to $10 and the brothers had to arrange a private bailout from a consortium of banks and companies. The Hunts were dragged in front of congress, chewed out, charged with manipulation, fined, fined again, and forced into bankruptcy. It took nearly a decade for them to unwind all their silver holding and satisfy creditors, and the final bill left them billions poorer – though still wealthy. (For a more in-depth explanation of how this happened, check out Silver Thursday: How Two Wealthy Traders Cornered The Market.)

Ending On a High
March 27, 1998, also marks the day Viagra was approved by the FDA. Viagra, originally meant to treat angina, became the world's first oral medication to treat erectile dysfunction. It hit a billion dollars in sales within its first year on the market.

Pfizer now has competition in the impotency treatment sector, but Viagra continues to do a robust trade. Not only is the little blue pill part of our social consciousness, but it also one of the few smash successes to get through the increasingly complex process of FDA approval. Viagra firmed up the hopes of pharmaceutical investors as well as the flagging libido of its many satisfied customer.

Next week we'll look at a presidential tax bill, Seward's folly, the Marlboro Man and much more.

Missed last week's article? This Week in Financial History: Visa's IPO, Vivas Las Vegas And The Ides Of March.

Still feeling uninformed? Check out last week's Water Cooler Finance to see what's been happening in financial news.

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