How the 0.00003 Percent Lives

Spectators take a selfie  prior to the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Meet your friendly neighborhood billionaire. He’s a 63-year-old married guy. He’s got just over $3 billion in the bank, including $600 million in cash. He made his own money on Wall Street. He went to Penn. He loves sports. That basic composite comes from Wealth-X and UBS’s new “census” of the world’s 2,325 billionaires, giving a rare view into how the 0.00003 percent lives. And they live very, very well.

Their ranks are growing, their fortunes swelling. They now control about 4 percent of the world’s wealth. That’s $7.3 trillion, enough to take Apple private twelve times over, say, or to pay off the entirety of the United States’ debt to China.  

Our representative American billionaire made the bulk of his money in his 40s and 50s in finance. About half of his money is in private investments, like equity in his own firm. He keeps about 20 percent in cash, and a delicious 5 percent in real estate and “luxury assets,” presumably tamed jaguars and yachts with helicopter landing pads. He owns four houses, each worth about $20 million.

His wealth has grown in the past year, but he has not beaten the overall market. In part, that is because he holds so much cash, given that interest rates are so low and questions about the strength of the recovery remain. But there are other reasons, too.

The apparent safety of cash, reinforced by the painful psychological experience of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis and the subsequent troubles within 
the European Monetary Union, likely reinforces the tendency to favor this cautious allocation strategy,” said Simon Smiles of UBS Wealth Management in the report.

When not toiling in the mines, our billionaire loves hobnobbing with other billionaires. “Generally speaking, billionaires form bonds and relationships with individuals who share their interests and abilities,” the census solemnly reports.

That class of billionaires cares nothing for the nation-state, by the way. Most of them live in megacities like New York, Hong Kong, and London, hopscotching from “city to city, not country to country.” When they get together, they love watching athletic competitions, particularly of the country-club sort. The Masters, the America’s Cup, and the Kentucky Derby are mainstays of their social calendar, along with Davos and the world’s various biennales.

As a New Yorker, our billionaire probably also supports the arts. If he lived in Los Angeles or Lagos, he’d be into aviation. If he lived in Geneva, he’d love yachting and sailing.

He’s a philanthropic guy, but less so than you might think. Over his lifetime, he’ll probably give away a cool hundred million, but that’s just pennies on his many dollars. Where will the money go? Straight back to Penn. Billionaires love giving away money to schools, with one in three naming education as their top philanthropic cause. 

But he is starting to think about what he’s going to do with his billions, having spent decades amassing them. Our rich guy — like so many rich guys — will be eligible for Medicare and Social Security soon. He might have already started bequeathing his assets to his children and grandchildren, helping to kick of an enormous intergenerational transfer of wealth. In other words, get ready for the princelings — the class of billionaire that is growing fastest is the class whose money comes both from inheritances and elbow grease.