Remembering Bre-X- The First Big Internet Stock Scam

It has been 20 years since the Bre-X stock scam.  It may not be completely accurate to call it the first internet stock manipulation, but it was certainly the largest for its time. The scam was based upon false information that the company originally circulated on the internet. After a while large companies and the mainstream media jumped on the bandwagon. Then large investors followed.

Bre-X was a Canadian penny stock company whose share price went from about $.30 per share in 1993 to over $250 in 1997. The stock was originally traded on the Alberta Stock Exchange and later the Toronto Exchange and then moved to NASDAQ.

At the end, it took only about one month or so for Bre-X to unravel completely.  When the stock collapsed, investors had lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-$6 billion.

Bre-X has a fairly simple story. The company claimed to have located a huge deposit of gold, perhaps the largest single deposit ever discovered, deep in the jungle on the island of Borneo which is part of Indonesia.

People have been scamming investors with claims of huge gold discoveries for a long time. And as they say “greed is a powerful motivator”.

As far as anyone knows the entire a scam was the product of no more than 3 people.  The primary players were David Walsh the founder and largest shareholder of Bre-X, John Felderhof the chief geologist and Michael de Guzman the on-site geologist in Borneo.

Walsh purchased the property located in the middle of a jungle in 1993 on the advice of Felderhof.  The on-site geologist, de Guzman, took samples which were assayed. He initially estimated that the deposit was equal to 2 million Troy ounces of gold. The estimate of the site’s size and worth increased over time. In 1995 the estimate was raised to 30 million ounces, in 1996 it was raised to 60 million and finally in 1997 the estimate was 70 million ounces.

There was actually no gold at the site. It was later revealed that de Guzman was “salting” the samples he was sending to be assayed, i.e. he was adding gold shavings to the samples.  There is nothing particularly new about this scam. People had salted gold and silver mines to gain investors before. What was new is that the fake information was disseminated over the internet.

The internet in 1994-1997 was very different than it is today. Computer screens still had no color. You could not upload or attach documents. There were no search engines.  E-mail was primitive and very few people had an e-mail address. There were 3 primary services that you could use for internet access; America On-Line, Prodigy and CompuServe.

I was an early CompuServe user. I say early because my account number had only six digits. I would usually access CompuServe in the evenings via my dial-up modem.  It was primarily a collection of forums and primitive chat rooms where users could swap information and discuss various subjects.  There was a section dedicated to stocks.

Bre-X was certainly one of the most often talked about stocks during this period. There might only be one or two dozen people who left comments but you knew that many more were silently lurking and reading them.  I was reading the comments late in the evening on the West Coast. There were certainly people who were writing comments and other people reading them on the East Coast the next morning.  There was a lot of information about Bre-X to post and discuss.

As new assays were supposedly being taken and the estimates about the size of the potential strike went up and up, larger players tried to put their hand into the cookie jar.

First there was a failed take-over attempt by Placer Dome which was a much larger mining company. Next, the government of Indonesia (then a corrupt dictatorship) tried to bring Barrick Gold on board. The government claimed to be concerned that a small company like Bre-X might not be able to handle a large mining operation,

Later, the government brokered a deal whereby Freeport-McMoran a third large mining company, would have a majority interest and run the mine.  Members of Indonesian President Suharto’s family and their cronies got a cut of that deal as well.

Once the shares were on the NASDAQ in 1996, Lehman Brothers and other big firms started to follow the stock. There were articles about it in the Wall Street Journal and the mainstream media.

Everyone seemed to think that the gold deposit that had been discovered in the middle of the jungle on Borneo might be larger than expected and that other sites in the jungle might be the next to be explored.  The “smart money” seemed to think that it was only a matter of time before more gold was discovered.

Freeport-McMoran began its due diligence by drilling samples in early February 1997. The internet chat rooms were on fire with the speculation that the results might show richer deposits than did previous samples.  But it was not to be.

The scam ended abruptly in mid-March when the geologist, de Guzman, supposedly fell (or was pushed) out of a helicopter over the jungle. The body that was recovered days later was badly disfigured and identified through dental records.  The body quickly disappeared from the local morgue. People have claimed to have sighted de Guzman in Canada and elsewhere in the years since.

Freeport McMoran reported the results from its test a few weeks later stating that there was little or no gold on the site.  There were a few subsequent tests which concluded that the gold in the original samples had come from elsewhere which is how we now know that the early samples were salted.

The stock, of course, collapsed.  Trading was suspended in Toronto and on NASDAQ and the company filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy revealed that three large Canadian public pension funds had been big investors and hence, big losers.

Walsh claimed innocence of the whole affair, moved to the Bahamas and died of natural causes. Felderhof was charged with insider trading (he had apparently sold millions of dollar’s worth of stock along the way) but was eventually acquitted.  Class actions brought on behalf of shareholders returned virtually nothing to them.

Just before the end, Bre-X had blamed the meltdown of the share price on the internet.  Walsh claimed that the rumors that the company had no gold had emanated from enemies of the Indonesian government and that the people in the internet chat rooms were short sellers who wanted to see the company fail.

It is certainly correct to argue that the stock would never have run-up if the “news” about the alleged gold discovery had not circulated in the chat rooms.  It is certainly fair to assume that the stock price would have gone higher if many more people had visited these chat rooms.  As the share price went up, more and more people became convinced that the people saying it will go higher must know what they are talking about.

It is appropriate to consider just how high the price of Bre-X might have gone if there had been as many internet users then as there are now.  In the 1990s the internet was just flexing its muscles. Today it can easily move the price of any investment up or down. People who know nothing can sound like geniuses if the the stock price goes up after they say that it should.

Bre-X is actually a model for a modern pump and dump schemes.  All you need to do is acquire a lot of shares in a penny stock, set up one or more investment newsletter websites and drive traffic to those sights by sending e-mails to lists of investors.  The SEC has closed down internet investment sites that have done just that.

If there is anything that any investor should learn from the Bre-X scam it is that you should only take investment advice from people that you know and trust.  A lot of what you hear on the internet is just not real.