Posted on Friday, February 4, 2011
Taking stock of the world’s plutocrats
MOST people would describe a dollar millionaire as rich, yet many millionaires would disagree. They do not compare themselves with teachers or shop assistants but with the other parents at their children’s private schools. To count the number of rich people in the world, however, an arbitrary cut-off point is needed, and $1m is as good as any. Capgemini, a consultancy, defines anyone with investable assets of $1m or more (excluding their home) as a “high-net-worth individual”, consultant-speak for rich. By this conservative measure the planet has about 10m millionaires, according to Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, a bank.
Credit Suisse, another bank, uses a less stringent (and more obvious) definition: a millionaire is anyone whose net assets exceed $1m. That includes everything: a home, an art collection, even the value of an as-yet-inaccessible pension scheme. The Credit Suisse “Global Wealth Report” estimates that there were 24.2m such people in mid-2010, about 0.5% of the world’s adult population. By this measure, there are more millionaires than there are Australians. They control $69.2 trillion in assets, more than a third of the global total. Some 41% of them live in the United States, 10% in Japan and 3% in China.
How did these people grow rich? Mostly through their own efforts. Only 16% of high-net-worth individuals inherited their stash, according to Capgemini. The most common way to get rich is to start a business: nearly half (47%) of the world’s wealthy people are entrepreneurs.
You do not have to be a genius to build a million-dollar business, but it helps if you are intelligent and extremely hard-working. In their book “The Millionaire Next Door”, Thomas Stanley and William Danko observed that a typical American millionaire is surprisingly ordinary. He has spent his life patiently saving and ploughing his money into a business he founded. He does not live in the fanciest part of town—why waste money that you can invest? And his tastes are so plain that you can barely tell him apart from his neighbours. He buys $40 shoes, and his car of choice is a Ford.
Another 23% of the world’s millionaires got rich through paid work, estimates Capgemini. A few vault easily over the million-dollar bar. Gregory Maffei, the boss of Liberty Media, an American cable-television firm, earned $87,095,882 in 2010. The median pay for chief executives at the 456 largest publicly quoted firms in America was $7.23m, according to the Hay Group, a consultancy. But the vast majority are skilled professionals or managers who have been careful with their money. An orthodontist in America makes about $200,000 a year. He may leave medical school heavily in debt, but after a lifetime of earning, saving and investing, he can probably amass $1m.
Some people hoped that the financial crisis would reduce the clout of the wealthy. In a crude sense it did: many saw a big part of their wealth vaporise. Capgemini says the number of high-net-worth individuals in the world (by their definition) fell by 15% in 2008, to 8.6m. Their total wealth tumbled by nearly 20%, to a still impressive $32.8 trillion, or $3.8m each. The super-rich fared even worse: the number of people with assets of $30m or more fell by a quarter in 2008, and their assets shrank by 24%.
Last year, however, the rich bounced back. By Capgemini’s measure their collective wealth rose by 19% in 2009, to $39 trillion. For the first time the number of rich people in Asia was much the same as in Europe: about 3m in each continent. The combined assets of Asia’s plutocrats, at $9.7 trillion, actually surpassed the European total. North America’s fat cats remained a whisker richer, with $10.7 trillion between the 3.1m of them.
More money, more say
The global wealth pyramid has a very wide base and a sharp point. The richest 1% of adults control 43% of the world’s assets; the wealthiest 10% have 83%. The bottom 50% have only 2%. This suggests a huge disparity of influence. The wealthiest tenth control the vast bulk of the world’s capital, giving them a lot of say in funding businesses, charities and politicians. The bottom 50% control hardly any capital at all.
That said, this huge group includes people in quite different circumstances. Many young people in rich countries have no assets and a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards. Technically, their debts make them poorer than African peasants who have nothing. But they enjoy a much higher standard of living and far better prospects. In Denmark and Sweden a startling 30% of the population say their debts exceed their assets, but few go hungry. Many have simply taken out large student loans which an indulgent government allows them to repay very gradually.
At the apex of the pyramid there are 81,000 people with assets of more than $50m. Of these, some 30,000 have more than $100m and 2,800 have more than $500m. Nestled into the sharp tip at the top, Credit Suisse reckons there are about 1,000 dollar billionaires (see chart 1).
For a while after the crash, many rich people piled into safe havens. The proportion of their assets securely parked in fixed-income investments rose from 21% in 2006 to 31% in 2010, says Capgemini. They also tended to pull back from unfamiliar environments. Europeans put more of their money into Europe, Americans put more into America and so on. A striking 71% say they still do not trust the regulators who are supposed to prevent crises.
After the crash many of the rich cut back on unnecessary luxuries, particularly the showy sort. Global yacht sales plunged by 45% in 2009, according to Capgemini, and four out of five yachtmakers had to cut back or shut down. But the market for luxury goods is recovering (see article). And looking at the past decade as a whole, fortune has clearly smiled on fortune-builders. Total global wealth (not just that of the rich) rose by 72% between 2000 and 2010, to $200 trillion, says Credit Suisse. Nearly half of this was due to the dollar’s fall against other currencies, but the rest came from economic growth and a rising population. As the number of adults in the world rose from 3.6 billion to 4.4 billion, the average wealth per person rose from $30,700 to $43,800.
Tracking the rise in rich people’s assets is not easy. Unlike income, wealth does not have to be declared to the tax authorities. But there is plenty of evidence that, as Credit Suisse puts it, “the past decade has been especially conducive to the establishment and preservation of large fortunes.” To get onto Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans in 1995, you needed $418m. Now it takes $1 billion.