In today’s astoundingly unequal global economy, banks can go either of two routes — or both — to bag ever bigger returns. They can squeeze the 99 percent with nuisance fees and penalties. Or they can cater to the richest of the rich.
But both routes have bumps. The 99 percent can squeeze back, as they did earlier this month when Americans by the tens of thousands shut down their Bank of America accounts to protest the bank’s $5 debit card greed grab. And the richest of the rich? To cater to these fortunates, you have to first find them.
That can be difficult. Fortunately, financial industry consulting firms have stepped up to help. These firms have started publishing annual global wealth surveys that pinpoint where banks — and luxury retailers and anyone else who wants in on top 1 percent action — can find “high” and “ultra high” net-worth individuals.
Last week, a new global firm — the Singapore-based Wealth-X — entered the global wealth survey fray, joining a crowded field that already includes Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, the Boston Consulting Group, Credit Suisse, and Deloitte LLP.
Each of these firms has tried to carve out a unique market niche. The Wealth-X specialty? The world of the ultra rich, those individuals who can claim at least $30 million in net worth. And the researchers at Wealth-X haven’t just counted these ultras in their first annual global wealth census. They’ve tiered them.
For the entire world — and major nations — Wealth-X teases out subsets of the super rich, from the $30-to-$50 million set to the $1 billion and up. For the first time, thanks to Wealth-X, we can compare the barely ultra with the comfortably ultra and those super ultras who can make the comfortables seem pinched.
“Our report maps exactly where the biggest money is located,” Wealth-X CEO Mykolas Rambus boasted at a Geneva news conference last week, “and just how much there is.”
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The Wealth-X research answers “how many” as well. The firm counts 185,795 individuals worldwide with at least $30 million net worth. These ultra high net-worth individuals — UHNWs — hold $25 trillion in combined wealth.
The global economy may be tottering, the new Wealth-X World Ultra Wealth Report 2011 goes on to inform us, but the “lifestyle habits of UHNW individuals have not been severely impacted.“
“Simply put,” the Wealth-X analyst team gushes, “the world’s wealthy elite are in a class of their own.”
In that class, Americans pack a bunch of the rows. Of the near 186,000 global ultra rich, 57,860 — 30 percent — carry U.S. passports. These American ultras hold a combined net worth of $7.6 trillion, an average of $131.4 million each.
That average masks a huge concentration of wealth at America’s summit. The 455 deep-pocketed Americans worth at least $1 billion hold half a trillion more in wealth than the 29,415 Americans in the Wealth-X $30-to-$50 million tier.
These numbers need a bit more context to have any real meaning, and we can take a stab at providing that context by glancing over at the “super committee” deficit-reductions deliberations now underway in Washington, D.C.
The 12 lawmakers on this congressional super committee — six Republicans and six Democrats — are trying to trim $1.2 trillion off federal red ink over the next ten years. On their chopping block: Medicare, Social Security, and assorted other programs essential to the well-being of America’s 99 percent.
The super committee reporting-out deadline comes next week. No one knows how much budget-cutting pain the panel will be recommending. But panel members could actually avoid all that pain — and raise over $1 trillion in new money for investing in America — simply by subjecting all U.S. individual net worth over $30 million to a modest wealth tax.
Our U.S. ultra wealthy, Wealth-X calculates, together hold almost $5.9 trillion over this $30 million threshold. An annual 5 percent wealth tax on this overage would raise over $293 billion a year, or $2.9 trillion over the next decade — more than double the $1.2 trillion the super committee is so desperately looking to find.
The most amazing part of this? America’s ultra rich could easily pay this 5 percent annual wealth tax for the next ten years and remain as rich as ever.
That’s because wealth begets wealth. All those trillions of dollars America’s ultras are currently holding don’t sit under some mattress. The ultra wealthy have those trillions invested in assets that generate short- and long-term returns.
If America’s ultras averaged returns on those investments not that far above 5 percent over the next ten years, they could pay the wealth tax and still end the decade with higher personal net worths than when the decade began.
Back in the 1990s, a public-spirited financial industry superstar — multimillionaire San Francisco money manager Claude Rosenberg — spent a sizeable chunk of his personal fortune campaigning to get a similar message across about the enormous wealth of the wealthy.
Rosenberg’s particular point: America’s fabulously rich could hike their annual contributions to charity by tenfold and still end up with higher personal fortunes. Rosenberg started a research group dedicated to sharing this message and the analysis behind it. He wrote a book and peppered the periodicals that rich people read with op-eds that detailed his group's number crunching.
In the year 2000, Rosenberg’s researchers would document, households with $1 million or more in income could have given $128 billion more to charity than they actually did in fact give, without losing any net worth over the course of the year.
Claude Rosenberg died three years ago at age 80, his message to the super rich essentially totally ignored. The vast increase in charitable giving by the rich he had hoped to inspire never materialized.
The message to the rest of us from Rosenberg’s noble effort?
The excess wealth our ultra wealthy hold, if put to the public good, could change the trajectory of America’s future. The ultra wealthy don’t seem to be willing to do that putting on their own.
With a few tweaks of our tax code, we could do that putting for them.