Andrew Gavin Marshall
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.