In 1997, the last year for which there was solid research done on the subject, 42 percent of the Forbes 400 richest Americans made the list through probate.
This lies at the heart of our plutonomy thesis: that the rich are the dominant source of income, wealth and demand in plutonomy countries such as the UK, US, Canada and Australia, countries that have an economically liberal approach to wealth creation. We believe that the actions of the rich and the proportion of rich people in an economy helps explain many of the nasty conundrums and fears that have vexed our equity clients recently, such as global imbalances or why high oil prices haven’t destroyed consumer demand. Plutonomy, we think explains these problems away, and tells us not to worry about them. If we shouldn’t worry, the risk premia on equity markets may be too high.
Secondly, we believe that the rich are going to keep getting richer in coming years, as capitalists (the rich) get an even bigger share of GDP as a result, principally, of globalization. We expect the global pool of labor in developing economies to keep wage inflation in check, and profit margins rising – good for the wealth of capitalists, relatively bad for developed market unskilled/outsource-able labor. This bodes well for companies selling to or servicing the rich. We expect our Plutonomy basket of stocks – which has performed well relative to the S&P 500 index over the last 20 years – to continue performing well in future. From this basket, we would highlight in particular, at the moment, LVMH and Richemont.
RISKS – WHAT COULD GO WRONG
Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks. For example, a policy error leading to asset deflation, would likely damage plutonomy. Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfranchisement remains as was – one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation (on the rich or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous laborers, in a push-back on globalization – either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments. (Equity Strategy Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer; Citigroup, Kapur et al, 2006)
(mouse over for controls) Taryn Hart, The Plutocracy Files interview William K. Black.