In part 1 of this series (“Globalization’s Game of Thrones”) I examined the concept of corporate and financial dynasties holding significant power in the modern world. In this, part 2 of the series, I examine the realities of the ‘wealth management’ industry in being responsible for handling the wealth and investments of the world’s richest families, and the role of a unique institution dedicated to protecting and propagating dynastic wealth: the family office.
A Family Affair
In 2010, Forbes – a major financial publication which publishes an annual list of the world’s richest people – noted that the richest of the richest 400 Americans were members of prominent corporate and financial dynasties, with six of the top ten wealthiest Americans being heirs to prominent fortunes, as opposed to being ‘self-made’ billionaires. What’s more, since the financial crisis began in 2007 and 2008, the fortunes of these dynasties – and the other super-rich who made the Forbes list – had only increased in value.
Corporate America can frequently be seen as the emblem of the ‘self-made’ rich, a representation of a supposedly democratic, capitalist society, where firms are run by “professional managers” who received the right education and developed the appropriate talents to make successful companies. The reality, however, is that roughly a third of the Fortune 500 companies (that is, many of the world’s largest multinational corporations) are, in fact, “family businesses,” frequently run by family members, and often outperforming the “professionally managed” firms “by a surprisingly large margin,” noted the New York Times.
In other words, in the United States – the beacon of the ‘self-made’ millionaire – a huge percentage of the most successful companies are owned by family dynasties, and most of the richest individuals are heirs to these family dynasties. The picture that begins to emerge better reflects that of an aristocracy, rather than a democracy.
As the New York Times noted in 2010, “the increasing use of so-called dynasty trusts” was undermining the notion that America was a meritocracy (where people ‘rise through the ranks’ of society based upon merit instead of money, access or family lineage). Dynastic trusts allow super-rich families “to provide their heirs with money and property largely free from taxes and immune to the claims of creditors,” not only providing for children, but “for generations in perpetuity – truly creating an American aristocracy.” In laws that predate the formation of the United States as an independent nation, such family trusts were only able to limit the term of the existing trust to roughly 90 years, after which the property and wealth which was consolidated into the trust would be owned directly by the family members. However, in changes that were implemented through Congress in the mid-1980s and in state legislatures across the U.S. in the 1990s, the rules were amended – with the pressure of the banking lobby – to allow family trusts to exist “forever,” a quiet coup for the existing and emerging aristocratic American class.
Thus, the modern dynasty trust was officially sanctioned as a legal entity – a type of private family company – that would be responsible for handling the collective wealth – in money, property, land, art, equities (stocks), bonds (debt), etc. – of the entire family, for generation after generation. The focus is on long-term planning to maintain, protect and increase the wealth of the dynasty, and to hold it ‘in trust’ against the inevitable in-fighting that accompanies dynastic succession and generational differences. This would prevent – in theory – one generation or patriarch from mishandling and squandering the entire family fortune.
The legal structure of a family trust differs greatly from public corporations in that their focus is not on maximizing short-term quarterly profits for shareholders, but in maintaining multi-generational wealth and prestige. Family trusts are increasingly used to manage the wealth of the world’s super-rich dynasties, alongside private banking institutions and other wealth management and consulting firms. There is an entire industry dedicated to the management of money, wealth and investments for the super-rich, and it is focused largely – and increasingly – on family dynasties.
Of Rockefellers and Rothschilds
One of the world’s most famous family trusts – the “family office” – is that of Rockefeller & Co., now known as Rockefeller Financial. It was founded in 1882 by the oil baron industrialist John D. Rockefeller as the ‘family office’ to manage the Rockefeller family’s investments and wealth. Roughly a century after it was founded, in the 1980s, Rockefeller & Co. began selling its ‘expertise’ to other rich families, and by the year 2008, the trust had roughly $28 billion under management for multiple clients.
When the CEO of Rockefeller & Co., James S. McDonald, shot himself in an alley behind a car dealership in 2009, the family looked for and found a successor in the former Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs for the Bush administration, Rueben Jeffery III, a former partner at Goldman Sachs. Jeffery was responsible for handling the family’s wealth throughout the global financial crisis, and by 2012, the assets under management by Rockefeller Financial had grown to $35 billion.
As of late 2012, Rockefeller & Co. had approximately 298 separate clients, providing them with “financial, trust, and tax advice.” The typical clients for Rockefeller & Co. are families with more than $30 million in investments, and the group charges new clients a minimum annual fee of $100,000. However, the family office has increasingly been attracting clients beyond other family dynasties, including major multinational corporations awash with cash in a world where nation states are flooded in debt. David Harris, the chief investment officer of Rockefeller Financial, explained in a 2012 interview with Barron’s (a magazine for the super-rich), that as the world’s nations were stuck in a debt crisis, triple-A rated multinational conglomerates represented “the new sovereigns” with “unprecedented” amounts of cash to be invested.
And while prominent family trusts have become increasingly attractive for other rich families and institutions to handle their wealth, they have also become attractive investments in and of themselves. One of Europe’s largest banks, the French conglomerate Société Générale (SocGen) purchased a 37% stake in Rockefeller & Co. in June of 2008. However, with the European debt crisis, the bank had to cut a great deal of its assets, and so in 2012 Rueben Jeffery III managed the sale of the 37% stake in the Rockefeller enterprise from SocGen to RIT Capital Partners, the investment arm of the London Rothschild family, one of the world’s most famous financial dynasties.
Barron’s magazine noted that the official union of these two major financial dynasties “should provide some valuable marketing opportunities” in such an uncertain economic and financial landscape, where “new wealth” from around the world would seek “to tap the joint expertise of these experienced families that have managed to keep their heads down and their assets intact over several generations and right through the upheavals of history.”
Early in 2012, the Rothschild family, with various banks and investment entities spread out across multiple European nations and family branches, was making a concerted effort to begin the process of “merging its French and British assets into a single entity,” aiming to secure “long-term control” over the family’s “international banking empire,” reported the Financial Times. The main goal of the merger was “to cement once and for all the family’s grip on the business,” giving the family a 57 percent share in the voting rights, thus protecting the merged entity from hostile takeovers. Thus, as the Rothschild banking dynasty was seeking to consolidate its own family interests across Europe, they were simultaneously looking to expand into the U.S. through the Rockefellers.
Thus, when Lord Jacob Rothschild – who managed the British Rothschild’s family trust, RIT Capital Partners – announced that RIT would be purchasing a 37% stake in Rockefeller Financial Services in May of 2012 for an “undisclosed sum,” it was announced as a “strategic partnership” that would allow the Rothschilds to gain “a much sought-after foothold in the US,” representing a “transatlantic union” that officially unites the two family patriarchs of David Rockefeller and Jacob Rothschild, “whose personal relationship spans five decades.”
At the time of the announcement, David Rockefeller, who was then 96-years-old, commented that, “Lord Rothschild and I have known each other for five decades. The connection between the two families is very strong.” Rockefeller & Co.’s CEO, Rueben Jeffery III, declared that, “there is a shared vision, at the conceptual and strategic level, that marrying the two names with particular products, services, geographic market opportunities, can and will have resonance. These are things we will want to act on as this partnership and overall relationship evolves.” In a world where families hold immense wealth and power, the official institutional union of two of the world’s most famous and recognizable dynastic names makes for an attractive investment for newer dynasties seeking propagation and preservation.
The Family Office
As the Financial Times noted in 2013, the “family office” for the world’s wealthy dynasties, which had “long been cloaked in a shroud of secrecy as rich families have sought to keep their personal fortunes private” has become more popular with “the explosion of wealth in the past few decades and dissatisfaction with the poor performance of portfolios handled by global private banks.” Still, many so-called “single family offices” continue to operate in secrecy, managing the wealth of a single dynasty, but the emergence of “multi-family offices” (MFOs) has become an increasing trend in the world of wealth management, handling the wealth and investments of multiple families.
The world’s largest private banks have specific “family office arms” which are dedicated to managing dynastic wealth, and these banks continue to dominate the overall market. Bloomberg Markets published a list of the top 50 MFOs in 2013, with HSBC Private Wealth Solutions topping the list, advising assets totaling $137.3 billion, with other banks appearing on the top ten list such as BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Pictet and UBS Global Family Office. Despite the fact that the family office arms of the world’s top private banks dominate the list, many of the oldest family offices made the list, such as Bessemer Trust and Rockefeller & Co. A top official at HSBC Private Bank was quoted by the Financial Times as saying: “Very wealthy families are becoming more and more globalized. It’s not just the fact that they are acquiring assets – like real estate – in several jurisdictions, but family members are scattered around the globe and need to be able to transact in those countries.” In effect, we are witnessing the era of the globalization of family dynasties.
Such a view is shared by Carol Pepper, a former financial adviser and portfolio manager at Rockefeller & Co. who established her own consulting firm – Pepper International – in 2001, specializing in advising families with more than $100 million in net worth. In a 2013 interview with Barron’s, Pepper explained that with the globalization of higher education – where the super-rich from around the world send their children to the same prominent academic institutions – as well as with the emergence of associations designed to bring wealthy families together, “the 19th century [is] coming back,” referring to the era of Robber Baron industrialists and co-operation between the major industrial and financial fortunes of the era. Pepper explained that in the present global environment, she was witnessing “a lot more exchange of ideas among wealthy families from different countries than there ever was before,” with such families increasingly investing in and with each other, noting that “inter-family transactions” had increased by 60% in the previous two years.
The globalization of family dynasties and the ‘return’ to the 19th century is an institutional phenomenon, facilitated by elite universities, business and family associations, international organizations, conferences and other organizations. Thus, regardless of geographic location, the world’s wealthiest families tend to send their children to one of a list of relatively few elite universities, such as Wharton, Harvard or the London School of Economics. At these and similar schools, noted Carol Pepper, the future heirs of family fortunes attain “both the know-how and the contacts for forging overseas collaborations between family businesses.”
So-called ‘non-profit’ associations like the International Family Office Association, the Family Business Network, and ESAFON, among others, are institutional representations of “intentional efforts by rich clans to rub shoulders with one another.” Instead of a rich family in one region hiring an outside firm to introduce them to a new market, they simply are able to reach out directly to the wealthy families within that market, and, as Pepper explained, their interests will be increasingly aligned and “hopefully you’ll all make money together.”
Instead of relying on banks as intermediaries between markets, rich families with more than $47 million to invest are pooling their wealth into the multi-family offices (MFOs). The Financial Times explained that such wealthy families were “crying out for something financial institutions have singularly failed to provide: a one-stop shop to manage both their business and personal interests.” Further, as banks have been coming under increased scrutiny since the financial crisis, “there is still a clandestine nature to the family-office world that will continue to attract clients.” Explaining this, the Financial Times appropriately quoted advice by the character Don Corleone from The Godfather, when he told his son: “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking.”
As the Wall Street Journal noted, family offices “are private firms that manage just about everything for the wealthiest families: tax planning, investment management, estate planning, philanthropy, art and wine collections – even the family vacation compound.” As such, regardless of where many family fortunes are made, the family office has come to represent the central institution of modern dynasties. And the growth of multi-family offices has been astounding, with the number increasing by 33% between 2008 and 2013, with more than 4,000 in the United States alone, the country with the highest number of wealthy families and individuals, including 5,000 households that have more than $100 million in assets. The Wall Street Journal noted: “You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to join a family office.” However, it does help to have hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2012, the list of the largest multi-family offices were largely associated with major banks, including HSBC, BNY Mellon, UBS, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, but Rockefeller Financial maintained a prominent position as the 11th largest multi-family office (according to assets under advisement and number of families being served). And beyond the specific arm of the ‘multi-family office’ to the list of the top wealth management groups as a whole, private bank branches of some of the world’s most recognizable bank names dominated the list: Bank of America Global Wealth & Investment Management, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo & Company, UBS Wealth Management, Fidelity, and Goldman Sachs, among others. However, after the top 19 wealth management companies in the world – all of which were arms of major global banking and financial services conglomerates – came number twenty on the list: Rockefeller Financial.
Indeed, things have never been better for the super-rich. A 2012 poll of 1,000 wealthy Americans by the Merrill Lynch Affluent Insights Survey revealed that 58% of respondents felt more financially secure in 2012 than they did the previous year. In 2013, U.S. Trust, the private banking arm of Bank of America, released a survey of 711 individuals with more than $3 million in investable assets, of whom 88% reported that they were more financially secure today than they were before the financial crisis in 2007. Further, the main goal for the super-rich in 2013 was reported to be “asset appreciation” as opposed to “extreme caution”, as the survey reported for 2012.
In 2013, Bloomberg Markets Magazine reported that the number of wealthy people in the world with more than $1 million in investable assets had increased by 9.2% over 2012, reaching a new record of 12 million individuals, and the assets by the rich increased by roughly 10%, reaching a combined total of roughly $46.2 trillion. With this growth in extreme wealth, the wealth management business is itself becoming a major growth industry, with independent firms competing against the big banks in a race to manage the spoils of the world’s super-rich.
And the world’s big banks want to get more of this investable wealth. For example, Goldman Sachs has boosted its private wealth management services. The number of partners at the bank working in asset management in 2010 represented 4.5% of the bank’s total partners, a number which grew to 12% by 2012. Tucker York, the head of private wealth management in the U.S. for Goldman Sachs, noted: “This is a relationship business, and long-term relationships matter… The focus for us is to have the right quality and caliber of people come into the business and stay in the business for a long, long time.”
The managing director and chief investment officer of Goldman Sachs’ private wealth management arm, Mossavar-Rahmani, told Barron’s in 2012: “This is the time to be a long-term investor… There are very few market participants in today’s environment who can truly be long-term investors. Who can really afford to be a long-term investor? The ultra-high-end client is the only one we could think of, because they generally have more money than their spending needs.” In addition, he noted, “their assets are multigenerational,” and, what’s more, “they are not accountable to anyone.”
In a world of immense inequality, with the super-rich controlling more wealth than the rest of humanity combined, the wealth management industry – and within it, the ‘family office’ – have become growth industries and increasingly important institutions. The whole process of globalization has facilitated not only the internationalization of financial markets, multinational corporations and the economies they dominate, but it has in turn facilitated the globalization of family dynasties themselves, whose wealth is largely based on control over corporate and financial assets and institutions.
In globalization’s ‘Game of Thrones’, the world’s super-rich families compete and cooperate for control not simply over nations, but entire regions and the world as a whole. As dynasties seek perpetuation, most people on this planet are concerned with survival. Whoever wins this ‘Game of Thrones,’ the people lose.