Rich List Redux

Another year, another Sunday Times Rich List and it is, today’s release tells us, “boom time for billionaires”.  Much is made of the rising level of philanthropic giving among the über-wealthy, but the bigger story seems to be the sheer overall rise in wealth, which is striking even for those of us who have kept a close eye on ‘The List’ in recent years.  Key stats are:

  • An overall year-on-year increase in estimated wealth of 14%
  • The top 500 individuals and families in 2017’s list are worth more than the value of the entire 1,000-strong 2016 list
  • A billionaire boom: 15 years ago there were just 21 billionaires listed; this year the figure is 134
  • The entry level of £110m is double that of the 2009 list
  • The 2017 total list value is more than six times that of the 1997 list, whose value was an estimated £99bn

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For charities, a 20% increase in the value of UHNWI philanthropy over the last year does not quite obscure the gulf between donations and the wealth of the haves and the have yachts.  While 260 philanthropists in the list are quoted as giving an estimated total of £3.196bn, up 20% from 2016, the potential for contributions from this group to completely transform the face of British philanthropy is beyond doubt – just 2% of the value of the Rich List would double private donations in this country, which currently stand at c£11bn-£13bn per year.  However, UHNWI donations continue to lag well behind even this number, and have not shown any sign of catching up with donations from the public more widely.  Particularly striking is the absence of any of the very wealthiest families in the Giving List index of the most generous HNWI’s.  Indeed, none of the 41 wealthiest ‘Listers’ – with estimated wealth in excess of £274bn – appear in the Giving List, and, with only a couple of exceptions, it is only once we reach the middle ranks of the list that significant donations kick in.  No doubt there are many anonymous donors at the top end of the list, and data used to compile wealth, power and philanthropy lists will of course always be partial at best.  However even taking this into account, it does seem that the gap between what is and what could be for British HNWI has never been greater.  Another trend is the rise in ‘giving while living’.  There are likely to be many reasons for this, however the rise of self-made money could well be feeding a more hands-on approach to philanthropy.  It is also likely that the pleasure of giving to good causes, as evidenced by Giving Pledge and other such initiatives, has had an effect.

And away from philanthropy, an ever-greater concentration of wealth gives more and more political clout to UHNWIs, whose political donations give them real – some would say really worrying – traction in the political process.  And at the confluence of politics, philanthropy and finance, I was especially struck by Crispin Odey’s donation of £873,328 to the ‘Leave’ campaign, as Odey bet (via his fund Odey Asset Management) that the UK economy would slow down in the event of Brexit.  The bet backfired however, as the UK economy powered on through, causing his marquee fund to lose almost half its value in a matter of months.

Nestled among new List compiler Robert Watt’s engaging prose are fascinating nuggets of trivia, some of which give make light of the unattainable wealth of list members. For instance Jack Ma (estimated net worth: £26.7bn) apparently thinks that the optimum earning level for happiness is £2,500-£5,000 per month – “the more money you have”, he is quoted as saying, “the more things you have to do”.  Another, perhaps even more germane, nugget is elsewhere.  In a fascinating interview with Management Today, Rich List founder Robert Beresford says that “around 90% of the [lists] wealth is not liquid, it is tied up in the businesses that the current rich or previous generations have built”.  This shows two things – first, that the fraction of British HNWI wealth needed to significantly raise overall private philanthropy is far higher than first impressions of headline figures suggest.  Second, that, as a result of this, fundraisers will have to work very hard to build strong enough relationships to achieve such increased gift levels.  A tough ask – but by no means impossible,

It seems that, as Beth Breeze’s recent Good Asking report suggested, fundraising research is needed – now, more than ever.

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