Written by Rosa Tressell and Dr. Leon Tressell exclusively for SouthFront
Once a family-owned business Forbes is well known for producing their annual list of the world’s richest billionaires. Launched in 1982 the original list ranked the top 400 Americans by net worth. Only 13 billionaires were included in that list, and their combined worth was the equivalent of 2.8% of GDP. In an era where “Greed is Good”, the list became wildly popular, by 2000 the combined net worth of the top 400 equated to 12.2% of US GDP. So prestigious became the list that an ex-employee of Forbes has claimed that Donald J Trump inflated his personal wealth to be included.
This year more than 2,200 billionaires made the Forbes list with a combined value of $9.1 trillion, or half the GDP of the US. Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, topped the list this year as his fortune rose to £112 billion making him the first centi-billionaire. His wealth is now equal to that of 2.3 million Americans. This has allowed him to dethrone Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, worth just $90 billion.
Using data from their list Forbes has produced a list of the top 25 richest families in the world. Together they are worth over $1.1 trillion, or the entire GDP of Indonesia. The richest clan is the Walton family who own the ubiquitous Walmart chain in America. They have a total family wealth of £152 billion and several family members are on the list of billionaires as individuals. The Koch Brothers, of Koch Industries, are ranked second with £98.7 billion. The third spot, with $90 billion to their name, is taken by another American family, the Mars family, known for their various sweet treats.
In comparison to the billionaires list this list is a measure of families who have inherited and grown their wealth over generations. The billionaires list is dominated by Americans in certain fields; technology, finance, entertainment and sport. It lauds entrepreneurism and promotes the self-made man (and small handful of women). The family fortunes list on the other hand reveals a more historical route for making money. Whilst Jeff Bezos has shot to the top of the list based largely on the astonishingly over valued share price of Amazon stock, the family fortunes are centered on the production and purveyance of goods.
Many of the families on the list started making their fortunes in the late nineteenth century. These are: Cargill Industries (agricultural conglomerate); Boehringer Ingelhelm (pharmaceuticals); Cox Enterprises (communications); Hyatt Hotels (hotels); SC Johnson (household goods); Roche (pharmaceuticals); and the Hearst Corporation (media). Meanwhile the Van Damme/De Spoelberch/De Mevius family (ranked fourth with a fortune of $54.1 billion) have been brewing quality Belgian beer, like Stella Artois, dating back centuries.
The production and purveyance of quality high end goods as a means to fortune is evident as BMW (the Quandt family), Chanel (the Wertheimer family) and Hermes (the Dumas family) find these families all ranked in the top ten.
Reliance Industries is the fist non-Western entry. A Mumbai-based energy conglomerate, it was founded by Dhirubhai Ambani in 1957 and is now worth $43.4 billion. It was his ambition to be the world’s richest man. However, following his untimely death there was a very public and acrimonious dispute between his two sons revolving around the inheritance. The widow eventually brokered a settlement and the family fortune goes on, but it does show how easily a family fortune can be dissipated.
In addition to Walmart there are two other families that have made their fortunes in retail. The Albrecht Brothers who founded Aldi are ranked 11th with a $38.8 billion fortune followed at twelfth by the Mulliez family who founded Auchan, France’s equivalent of Walmart. At thirteenth spot, with a fortune of £34 billion, is the Kwok family. They started in business as a grocery wholesaler but they really made their money when they moved into Hong Kong real estate in the 1970s. Similarly the Lee family from South Korea began as grocery exporters but have made their fortune as the worlds largest producers of smart phones with their company Samsung.
There is some methodology to the list that requires explanation. Bloomberg’s categorisation of family wealth is based on reliable, sourced documentation. They add up family members assets, including stakes in public and private companies, real estate, art and cash, and takes into account debts. It excludes first-generation fortunes and those in the hands of a single heir. It also excludes those who have derived their fortune from the state. This explains why there are no Chinese families on the list and only three from the Asian region. As newly found wealth is handed down this looks set to change.
The Forbes list also excludes members of royal families and dictators who derive their fortunes entirely as a result of their position of power. Nor do they value those holding fortunes in trust for their nations. So, despite being worth untold billions, families like the royal family of Brunei or the British monarchs are absent. Quantifying this wealth is difficult. For example, Buckingham Palace alone would be valued in excess of $5 billion, however there would certainly be conflict with Parliament if the Queen wanted to sell it!
Many billionaires positively don’t want to be on the list. They don’t want the publicity for their families with the increased risk of kidnapping, being hit up for money, questions from the tax man or even from law enforcement. Kenichi Shinoda, current Kingpin of the Yakuza, is rumoured to be worth billions but is known to keep a low financial profile. There is also plenty of Western media speculation that the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is actually the world’s richest man. The Bush family have amassed a vast fortune, and there are allegations that much of it has been amassed behind the political scenes in various CIA backed gun and drug running operations.
Calculations of wealth, for individuals or families, can be obfuscated by the numerous off shore arrangements that exist today. Historically, many of the world’s largest landowners are not officially registered as a result of having held title to the land for centuries. In addition trusts, foundations and “charities” allows for the ownership and management of assets in a more private manner. Wealthy families pay professionals a healthy wage to minimise their exposure to the taxman – especially avoidance of inheritance tax.
Absent from the list are the giant banking families, the Rockefellers, the Morgans and the Rothschilds; famed for being on every conspiracy theory list as powers behind the scene. The report says that their fortunes are too diffuse and diversified to correctly value. Other families suspected of wielding their riches for their own political and social agendas include the DuPonts, the Astors, the Bundys and the Freemans, to name a few. Families that like to keep their immense fortunes and their activities confidential.
To have such wealth is naturally to have much power. Certain families, like the Bushes and the Kennedys used their cash to enter politics. The Koch Brothers have already pledged $400 million to the Republicans for the 2018 mid-term elections and their support was seen as instrumental in securing Donald J Trump’s election victory. The Walmart Family Foundation is one of America’s largest political donors, and is described as a “heavy hitter” from the Centre of Responsive Politics. Economic advantage is translated into legislative favours via lobbying and campaign donations. For example, one Arkansas Congresswoman who supported the repeal of an estate tax received $83,650 from the Walton Family Foundation and now works for them as a lobbyist. This exemplifies the corrupt relationship between economic and democratic inequality and is indicative of a system where the majority feel their voice is irrelevant.
Capitalism is built on an idea that a rising tide lifts all ships. We are supposed to look up to these rich families as examples of our betters. Underlying the lists that Forbes assembles is a worshiping of the rich. Underpinning the American dream is that its possible for anyone or any family to make it (onto the list). However, even Scrooge McDuck must be envious of the enormous fortunes of these families. As the wealth inequality gap grows within countries, especially the Western nations, there is the risk that the social fabric is coming apart at the seams. When 40% of Americans have less then $500 in savings the material basis for living the Dream is seriously compromised. Indeed, this could all turn just as easily into anger as people see that the six individual Walmart heirs alone have more wealth than the bottom 30% of the US population, and they ask themselves is this fair?
This report confirms accelerating trends towards further wealth disparity. Reports by Oxfam have shown a gaping chasm of global inequality. In 2017 3.7 billion people saw no increase in their wealth, whilst 82% of the wealth created went to the top 1%.
According to the World Inequality Report 2018:
If established trends in wealth inequality were to continue, the top 0.1% alone will own more wealth than the global middle class by 2050.
Donald Trump’s ambition to be included on the list displays his naked ambition for money, power and success. In his school of market economics, of dog eat dog, this trend is only the logic of the market. It is seen as aspirational by those at the top and by magazines like Forbes. However, even the 1% at Davos earlier this year had wealth inequality on the agenda. As the social fabric tears, political and social instability will increase. The Brexit vote, driven by the anger of the dispossessed English working class, for example, has turned the UK’s traditional stability on its head. Anger is brewing below the surface everywhere and the probability of social and political uprisings throughout the globe are increasing.