Adventures with the new plutocracy, wealth-beta edition

By Felix Salmon
December 19, 2011
Robert Frank -- the WSJ writer, not the Cornell economist -- had a fascinating column about what he calls "wealth beta" this weekend.

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Robert Frank — the WSJ writer, not the Cornell economist — had a fascinating column about what he calls “wealth beta” this weekend. If you’re a member of the 1%, it turns out, you don’t just have a lot of money; you’re also likely to be seeing a huge amount of volatility in your wealth and your income. And this volatility has been measured according to the familiar scale where the broad stock market has a beta of 1:

The new rich have become the high-betas of our economy. With their dependence on financial markets, their leverage and their hyperspending, the top 1% have income swings that now are more than twice as high as those of the rest of the population.

A study by Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen of Northwestern University found that the beta of the top 1% nearly quadrupled between 1982 and 2007 to 2.39. The top 0.01% had a beta of 3.96, making even the riskiest tech stocks look safe by comparison. Economists and wealth managers say the betas of the rich have likely soared even higher in recent months as markets gyrated sharply.

Frank’s column is based pretty unquestioningly on the idea that this is a bad thing, and he quotes a few wealth-management executives talking about how very rich people can stay rich for decades, and avoid losing all their money.

But my feeling is that high-beta wealth is something to be celebrated — it’s one of the few silver linings to the current rise in inequality. People might become stupendously wealthy, but we’re not really creating a new class of dynasts here. Instead, the money comes, and then, almost as fast as it came, it goes.

One reason is just that the idea of preserving wealth in one’s own family for many generations to come has rather gone out of fashion. If you inherit a fortune which has been in your family for hundreds of years, then you do generally feel a responsibility for maintaining it and passing it on to future generations. But families are smaller now than they used to be, and self-made billionaires don’t necessarily consider multi-generational wealth preservation as a particularly top priority. Indeed, it’s more common to see billionaires swing the other way: Warren Buffett, for instance, likes to say that he wants to leave his children “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing”.

And some billionaires, of course, are childless, which means they can and should do exactly what they want with their money. They’re basically forced to give it away to charity, since it’s pretty much impossible to spend that kind of money.

The fact is that if you’re hugely wealthy, you’ll almost certainly live very well for the rest of your life no matter how much of your money you risk and lose. Short of going to jail, the rich very rarely find themselves completely impoverished. And in any case, self-made plutocrats tend to have extremely healthy egos: they’re confident that if they lose everything, they’d be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and do it all over again.

Wealth, at these stratospheric levels, is a way of measuring who’s winning the game; if it’s not rising, you’re not winning. And of course the things that Frank prescribes — like taking on less debt and diversifying your holdings — tend to go directly against the very strategies which created all that wealth in the first place.

We live in a world where millions of people are pursuing dreams and careers which have some small chance of being hugely successful. The number of people who have a chance of achieving such success has never been greater — and when it arrives, that success is increasingly lucrative for those who get there. That’s the game; its winners change from year to year and decade to decade. But the glory goes only to the person who makes the money, not to anybody who inherits it — unless they, too, display a similar knack.

So let’s not encourage the uber-wealthy to squirrel away their money and keep it in their families. It’s a good thing that today’s wealth has high velocity and that if it doesn’t get lost in the marketplace it’s more likely than ever to end up somewhere philanthropic. Even if that frustrates executives at private banks and wealth management companies.

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