The global economy is experiencing a second Gilded Age of wealth creation that is substantially different from the one in the early days of the twentieth century. According to the UBS/PwC 2015 Billionaires Report released Tuesday, a majority of today’s billionaires made their money in finance, technology or consumer goods rather than heavy industry, which dominated at the turn of the last century, and an increasing number of them are from Asia, primarily China, though the U.S. still leads.
The UBS/PwC report analyzed the wealth of more than 1,300 billionaires worldwide worth $5.4 trillion. They account for account for three-quarters of the world’s billionaires but less than 4 percent of the world’s wealth. Two-thirds of these billionaires are self-made, compared with 43 percent in 1995, and almost half of those entrepreneurial billionaires reside in the U.S., followed by Asia (36 percent) and Europe (17 percent). In the first quarter of this year, a new billionaire was created every week in China.
The sources of these billionaires’ wealth differ by region. Finance and technology, in that order, are the drivers of their wealth in the U.S. while consumer infrastructure and real estate are the drivers in Asia. In Europe, family dynasties accounted for much of billionaires’ wealth, and consumer goods are the primary business source.
Looking ahead, the report expects continued growth in self-made billionaires, peaking at about 70 percent of the billionaire population compared with 66 percent today. Asia will lead in the creation of new billionaires, in part because the population’s relative youth, while the global growth of billionaires overall will decelerate. “The response to rising inequality, increasing taxes and asset price deflation may all play a part in slowing the current cycle,” the report states.
In the meantime, today’s billionaires need to decide how to transfer their wealth and create and sustain their legacies since almost two-thirds of them are over 60 years old and inherited wealth is diluted with each successive generation if it doesn’t grow. Using this “generational algebra,” the report illustrates how $1 billion of a billionaire family becomes $333 million for each heir in the second generation and eventually $12 million per heir in the fifth generation. “This calculation shows the importance of strategic planning and long-term structuring … to protect lifetime achievements and preserve their values into the future,” the report states. Driving that point home, it notes that only 40 percent of the billionaire class of 1995 are among the same elite bracket today, and only 9 percent of the billionaire class of 2014 were there 19 years earlier.
In deciding the future preservation and growth of their wealth, billionaires have to choose between keeping their businesses, cashing out, engaging in philanthropy or some combination of two or three of those options. Currently, 60 percent of self-made billionaires in the U.S. and Europe choose to keep their businesses and about a third choose a hybrid strategy, selling just part of their business through a trade sale or IPO, according to the report. Only 10 percent cash out completely.
In Asia, where the billionaires tend to be younger, many haven’t yet made that decision about the future, but the report expects that more than half of Asian and European billionaires will set up business dynasties for their families.
Those billionaires who choose to cash out have three options: set up a new business, becoming a “serial entrepreneur,” retreat from daily operations and become a principal investor — the report calls this “portfolio investor” — or completely withdraw from the business and preserve wealth through investments, becoming a “financial investor.” The report expects that 60 percent will choose the financial investor role; 23 percent will opt to be portfolio investors, and only 17 percent will start a new business.
The report also expects that “as the aging generation of billionaires look to their legacies, they’re increasingly likely to embrace philanthropy” through donations to endowments, socially focused investing and contributions to the arts and education. More than 100 billionaires have joined Bill Gates’ “Giving Pledge”, promising to give away more than 50 percent of their wealth, and the report expects that number will grow, especially among self-made billionaires with more than $20 billion in assets.