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1 December 2013 CFA Institute Journal Review

The Changing Nature of Global Wealth Creation: Shifts and Trends in the Ultra High Net Worth (UHNW) Community (Digest Summary)

  1. Gregory G. Gocek, CFA

Characteristics of ultra-high-net-worth individuals have evolved over the last two decades. The authors consider the concentration of these investors’ asset holdings, their geographic dispersion, and the sociological phenomenon of extremely affluent transnational individuals—analogous on the institutional level to the multinational corporation.

What’s Inside?

The authors focus on key developments since 1992 regarding ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) individuals, defined as persons whose net worth is at least US$30 million. They find that throughout the world, wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in the UHNW’s top tier, with self-made billionaires leading the “winner take all” phenomenon aided by increased globalization and advanced technology. In addition, emerging markets have a more prominent representation within the UHNW category, and the UHNW community is increasingly mobile and globalized as a type of “world citizen” class; individuals often own multiple residences across global centers of affluence. These identified trends are expected to continue well into the future, with Asia growing in importance.

How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?

This research provides a reality check, especially for US professionals, although it is likely that very few are unaware of the criticisms of income inequality from such groups as Occupy Wall Street as well as proponents of the Dodd–Frank Act. Similar to the distribution of income, the wealth pyramid is steepest at its absolute peak, and this pattern is far from a local phenomenon.

Given the personal mobility of the UHNW community, class solidarity is probably a more unifying group element for this economic stratum than is nationalist sentiment or cultural or racial identity. This fact may make these individuals an appealing target for country-based taxing or regulatory authorities seeking to establish “fairness” or gain quick access to accumulated pools of capital for redistributionist aims. Because UHNW individuals naturally desire to preserve their assets, it behooves their financial advisers to understand all available techniques to remain a step ahead of regulatory changes. In any event, the concentration of wealth is becoming even more dramatic than usual in the world’s most economically dynamic regions.

How Did the Authors Conduct This Research?

Methodologically, the research is descriptive, in contrast to typical professional or academic journal articles that apply more sophisticated quantitative techniques. The data sources are based on agency work from the Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the IMF World Economic Outlook Database, UN studies of migration and remittances, and World Bank estimates of GDP across countries. In addition, the authors use proprietary research performed at their firm, Wealth-X, on patterns of global wealth, which lacks any discussion of underlying methods or sources.

Similarly, in noting the distinction between new and old money and the significance of self-made billionaires, other than a single anecdotal reference to a specific family (the world’s wealthiest, the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame, whose combined net worth is $135 billion), no evidence is provided beyond the broadest assertions on the provenance of great wealth. In discussing the probable shared outlook and values of the UHNW community, the authors attribute their beliefs solely to a tendency to own personal real estate in the same international hot spots, such as New York City, London, Singapore, and Tokyo. There is no reference to separate research on the UHNW population to gauge their internal cohesion relative to the world’s less affluent.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

A famous, but nonetheless mythical, conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway is relevant. Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.” The authors’ study does not belabor the obvious and does highlight trends in wealth holding that can have major economic and policy implications. Its chief shortcoming is in not fully investigating the development of an UHNW global class. In addition, the lack of discussion of the methods or sources of the proprietary data from Wealth-X leaves open the question of the ultimate reliability of the asserted trends. The authors’ findings could be strengthened by more rigorous documentation. Thorough research in this potentially inaccessible arena promises to be quite revealing.

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