Rags to riches stories are rare; most wealthy people are born that way

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 3:28pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 10:48pm

Many people are familiar with the notion that the best way to earn a small fortune is to start with a large one. This is rather cynical but what cannot be doubted is that the easiest way to get rich is to inherit wealth.

So, this newspaper’s better healed readers should be delighted with the news that not only are the rich getting richer but also that the overwhelming majority of the super rich have achieved their wealth through inheritance.

The latest findings of the US-based Wealth-X survey, covering 2015-16, were revealed last week. They show that the world’s billionaires (i.e. those with a net worth in excess of US$1 billion) were collectively worth US$7.7 trillion, up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. To put this figure in perspective, the 2,473 billionaires placed in this category by Wealth-X, collectively own a sum amounting to a shade below half the entire gross domestic product of the world’s biggest economy, the United States (US$17 trillion).

The survey also found that the Asia-Pacific region is poised to overtake the US as home to the biggest billionaire population. Last year the region produced four times as many new billionaires as the United States.

By strange coincidence in the week that this report was published one of Britain’s richest men died. The Duke of Westminster, Gerald Cavendish, passed away leaving an estate valued at around £9 billion.

This fortune originated with the wealth acquired by Sir Thomas Grosvenor in the 17th century. His successors clung onto it with various degrees of success, the recently deceased sixth duke was not exactly known for his business prowess but had the good sense to be surrounded by advisers who knew what to do and diversified the business, which is based on prime property holdings. Even more importantly they fortified the structure that left the company less vulnerable to the whims of the family patriarch after one of the Grosvenors almost succeeded in gambling away the family’s fortune in the 1770s.

The business will now be in the hands of the sixth duke’s son, aged 25; it remains to be seen whether he will follow his father’s example following assumption of the family fortune when he became best known for driving fast cars and crashing them before knuckling down to his responsibilities.

I mention this not to be gratuitously rude to the recently deceased Duke but to make the point that few people in Britain, or anywhere else in the world, have managed to achieve a fortune of these proportions by sheer dint of their own efforts. There are, of course, exceptions and they are very well known, particularly in an age where vast fortunes have been accumulated by sheer brainpower alone.

Yet the cards are heavily stacked against success for even the smartest kids on the block. Study after study shows that wealth inheritance is the key determinant in the success or otherwise of children. Yet there is a lingering impression that the world is full of wonderful rags to riches stories, but the reality is that we know these tales precisely because they are exceptional.

The cards are heavily stacked against success for even the smartest kids on the block

One of the reasons why Communist ideology drew so much popular support in years gone by was because it promised that the triumph of the workers would finally be a means of thwarting the concentration of power among the rich. This has not happened and the concentration of wealth has grown by a staggering degree. Last year Oxfam published a survey showing that on current trends the world’s richest 1 per cent will own more than 50 per cent of the globe’s wealth.

So where does this leave the world’s largest Communist state? According to a report published at the beginning of this year by Peking University, the situation in the People’s Republic is one of a steady march towards greater inequality. The report found that a mere 1 per cent of the population owned a third of the nation’s wealth, compared with the poorest 25 per cent who collectively owned just 1 per cent of this wealth.

The Gini coefficient, the widely recognised best indicator of income inequality, placed China at 0.49, according to the World Bank 2012 survey. Any figure above 0.40 is considered to represent severe income inequality. Thus, on the basis of these figures, China emerges as significantly more unequal than Germany, and well above inequality levels in the United States. During the 1980s the Chinese figure hovered around 0.3 and has been steadily rising to the extent that China now stands third in the global inequality league table behind South Africa and Brazil.

So, the lesson here is simple: the best way to get rich is to be born rich, if you are careless enough to be born of modest means – tough.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur