Oklahoma City: More than $17 billion (R179.3bn) of Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm’s fortune could be subject to division with his estranged wife, according to an economic analysis presented in their divorce trial, defining the stakes in one of the biggest battles ever over a marital estate.
The analysis of Kenneth Button, an expert witness hired by Sue Ann Hamm, was laid out in testimony and in a document provided by Judge Howard Haralson.
It is one of the first pieces of financial testimony to be released from the trial, which has been conducted mostly in secrecy.
In an rare step for a divorce, case Haralson has barred the public from the court on most days and sealed most of the evidence to protect shareholders in Hamm’s Continental Resources from the release of confidential business information.
Through his 68 percent stake in driller Continental Harold Hamm is believed to own the most oil in the ground of any American.
Haralson released Button’s report after determining it isn’t subject to the protective order he has placed in the case.
It contends up to $15bn of the growth in Continental’s market capitalisation between the couple’s 1988 wedding and February is “active” marital capital, subject to division between them.
Since then, Continental’s value has grown by nearly $4bn, adding to the wealth the court could divide, Button said last week. About $2.6bn of that appreciation would accrue to Harold through his 68 percent stake in Continental.
Button’s analysis suggests the marital capital subject to division could be about $17.6bn.
If Judge Haralson accepts Button’s reasoning and awards Sue Ann a significant share of the marital estate, the Hamm split could yield the largest divorce settlement ever.
If Hamm has to sell Continental shares to finance a large settlement, his control of the company could be eroded.
Harold’s witnesses will testify later in the trial, which began last week.
What caused Continental’s increase in value is critical to the outcome.
Under Oklahoma law, any increase in the Hamms’ net worth resulting from the active efforts of either spouse during the marriage is considered part of the estate.
Continental’s impressive growth itself isn’t in dispute. Button’s report says the driller was valued at between $10 million and $50m when the couple wed in 1988. It is now worth about $27bn.
Sue Ann Hamm’s legal team contends this growth resulted largely from the active leadership and astute decision-making of Harold.
He is widely credited as a pioneer in developing the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota, the US’s largest oil discovery in decades.
Harold’s attorneys will try to show Continental’s growth resulted mostly from factors beyond his control.
They signalled this strategy in their cross-examination of Button, pressing the economist to consider that external forces, such as higher oil prices and new drilling technology, were decisive factors in Continental’s success.
Button is trying to undercut Harold’s position by comparing Continental’s spectacular growth with that of rivals.
The margin by which Continental’s financial returns outpaced those of similar oil and gas companies should be considered Continental’s “active” appreciation, the report says.
It compares Continental’s financial returns to those of 76 other publicly traded US independent drillers.
Continental’s return on investment was at least 44 271 percent during the Hamm marriage.
The average return among peers, over the same period, was 691 percent.
Continental’s outsize returns compared to its competitors were probably “the results of difference over time in the specific operational decisions and actions of the management of these companies”. – Heidi Brandes and Joshua Schneyer for Reuters