The plutocrat's new clothes

Apr 08 2008 by Robert Heller Print This Article

Hubris has been the foundation for the unstoppable surge in private wealth. The Millennial economy represents the era of the Naked Plutocrat. While the new super-fortunes are alleged to be rewards for super-adequacy and super-success, the Plutocrats are beginning to resemble a much earlier group of self-servers: the Robber Barons.

Seizing the commanding heights of the fast-rising US economy, the barons ruthlessly exploited their workforce servants, raped their few competitors and many customers, spent lavishly and exported their power to the Far East and Europe.

Today's largest fortunes now approach Robber Baron dimensions as debt replaces equity in organisations which mine the corporate economy for opportunities for creating or extracting wealth.

However, the possibilities aren't limited to the strategy of building debt-driven private companies. The wise have asked themselves why the private equity company (or its partner in self-enrichment, the hedge fund) shouldn't become public.

This discovery's apotheosis came on 11th June 2007, when the money firm inconspicuously known as Blackstone disclosed that chairman and CEO Stephen Schwartzman would pocket $677.2 million in cash from the public offering of its shares.

But that was a tiny amount when compared to the estimated value of $7.8 billion put on the boss's remaining stock. The 60-year-old had achieved Midas rank by two effortless transactions.

But Nemesis wasn't just lying in wait Ė it had actually struck already and the force that rocked the global economy continues to do so. For evidence see the shocking fall of investment bank Bear Stearns, forced to turn to the central bank for desperately needed rescue.

The summer collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds, stuffed to the brim with sub-prime mortgages, is now looked upon as the first inarguable sign that a fully-fledged financial crisis was underway.

That revelation came just before Blackstone's apotheosis. Because Schwarzman's empire had employed the business strategy of staying away from mortgage-backed securities, you might have thought that major falls in value would also be avoided.

No chance: come mid-January, Schwartzman's shares in the mother lode had fallen by half, to only $4.62 billion.

Because of the giant personal fortunes, new and old, that already command the economic heights, the Age of the Plutocrat is still riding high. The 'trickle-down effect' is how the holders of these fortunes try to justify themselves, the belief being that the poorer citizens gain by feeding on the crumbs from the rich man's table. But 'trickle' means what it says.

As the plutocratic chickens came home to roost, however, Bear Stearns and Northern Rock were hit by a flood.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".