With the 2011 Forbes List of the world’s billionaires recently released – and acutely aware of the huge volume of unaccounted for money found in offshore havens – Joan Baxter discusses the ‘highly stratified world that has become treacherously top-heavy’.
This year’s Forbes List of the world’s wealthiest people is out. On the heels of the global financial crisis, with sky-rocketing food prices, climate change already making life even more difficult for poor farmers in developing countries, with conflict and political turmoil around the world and with a billion or so people going to bed (if they have one) hungry every night, the super-rich are doing very well for themselves indeed. The Forbes List of billionaires has swollen this year to a record 1,210 individuals. On a planet with nearly 7 billion people, just 1,210 people (including 14 in Africa) possess $45 trillion, equivalent to 77% of the world’s GDP.
But the Forbes List doesn’t tell the whole story. It includes only billionaires with publicly traded fortunes. While it does include several billionaires who made their vast fortunes by pillaging natural resources and wealth in Africa and elsewhere around the world, it misses their accomplices – the billionaire leaders of a whole slew of African, Middle Eastern and central Asian countries. The list doesn’t include men like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who controls a stash worth ‘tens of billions’ that he managed to launder over the years using Swiss banks. Nor does it include Egypt’s former ruler, Hosni Mubarak, whose fortune is being estimated – now that he is deposed and no longer being coddled (and financed) by his Western friends – in the tens of billions.
If one could find all of these offshore holdings and add them to the $4.5 trillion net worth of the Forbes List billionaires, the amount would be more than staggering; it would be simply inconceivable. But we cannot track down their fortunes because they are well hidden.
In 2005, wealthy individuals held an estimated $11.5 trillion (about a quarter of the world’s total wealth at the time) ‘offshore’, a euphemism for tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions where it’s possible to stash vast amounts of wealth out of sight, certainly out of the grasp of governments in search of much-needed tax revenue. Some of these tax havens are actually not offshore at all, such as the City of London and Manhattan. The Tax Justice Network’s ‘Financial Secrecy Index’ ranks Delaware in the US as the number one of 60 secrecy jurisdictions, followed by Luxemburg, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. African tax havens include Liberia, Mauritius and the Seychelles. For every aid dollar handed across the table to Africa, ten dollars are taken back, primarily using Western banks and the offshore.
Over the past few decades, financial markets that were once subordinate to the real economy came to dominate it. Institutional investors took over and the search for the maximum profit in the shortest possible time became the only rationale for investment.
Of course, not all the super-rich are created equal. Some are neither greedy nor selfish; some are downright generous and patriotic and acknowledge that they owe much to the society that allowed them to become rich in the first place, and they dutifully pay taxes.
But many at the top of the monetary food chain hide their wealth in tax havens and virulently oppose progressive taxes that would help even out the alarming disparities and curb the dangerous accumulation of so much wealth in so few hands. Many use the power that their wealth affords them to engage armies of middlemen, accountants, lawyers and financial wizards to ensure that no one can get at their money. They fund ‘think tanks’ that fill the media (many of which they own) with propaganda that glorifies the wealthy and demonises the poor, the working people, the public sector, taxation and government itself. They undermine democracy, funding politicians and then lobbying them to block reforms of the financial system and regulations that might impede the growth of their wealth.
In this gilded age, where so few own so much (and can avoid paying taxes by hiding their wealth in tax havens) and the rest suffer or are left to their own devices to merely survive, a new vocabulary – a glossary of greed – has developed around and for the super-rich. It speaks volumes about the new globalised order where disparity and extreme inequality reign supreme, just like the global over-class.
OF HNWIS AND UHNWIS
First, it’s important to know that there are official terms for the very rich. They are known as ‘high net worth individuals’ or HNWIs. These are people who can, at the drop of a hat, put their hands on a million US dollars in ‘liquid assets’, also known as cash.
The HNWIs’ numbers have started to grow again, following the global financial crisis of 2008, which a good number of them helped bring about with their reckless and woolly get-rich-on-bad-debt and derivatives schemes. In 2009, there were 95,000 HNWIs in the world (at least ones that we know of – many crime bosses, despots and dictators would certainly swell this number were their wealth not hidden offshore). Between 2008 and 2009 their net worth rose 18.9 per cent – to $39 trillion.
But all is relative when it comes to wealth. Just as the world’s majority – the average person in Africa, Latin America and Asia – can still be considered extremely poor (monetarily) next to the average person living in Europe or North America, so are the run-of-the-mill HNWIs relatively poor when compared with the UHNWIs. These are the ‘ultra high net worth individuals’, people who can produce $30 million cash at any moment. UHNWIs have also seen their fortunes soar in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In 2009, their wealth rose 21.9 per cent.
These days, however, given that 1,210 individuals now possess fortunes in the billions – far in excess of the lowly cut-off point of $30 million for UNHWIs – perhaps it’s time to come up with a new term to accommodate the swelling ranks of billionaires. Perhaps RAUHNWIs, ‘ridiculously, appallingly and unbelievably high net worth individuals’?
THE COST OF LIVING EXTREMELY WELL
Since 1976, Forbes has been providing a ‘CLEWI’ – Cost of Living Extremely Well Index’ – for the monetarily well endowed. Forbes earnestly explains that the CLEWI is ‘to the very rich what the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index [CPI"> is to ordinary people’. Between 2009 and 2010, the CLEWI showed a 1 per cent inflation rate on the HNWI basket of basics, while the CPI for ‘ordinary people’ rose 1.1 per cent.
But those things in an ordinary person’s basket – a cup of rice or grain perhaps and a couple of tablespoons of oil for the average West African, or a panoply of nutritious foodstuffs and other things average citizens in rich countries consider basics – are a far cry from what is to be found in the CLEWI baskets. Prices for some items have stayed steady: a suite at the New York Four Seasons ($4,650), a Rolls Royce Phantom ($380,000), a Hattaras 80 MY motor yacht ($5,281,600) and a facelift at the American Academy of Facial Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery (still just $17,000).
The CLEWI shows that in 2010 HNWIs had to cough up 5 per cent more for VIP (very important person) care in the Washington Hospital Center. One day with concierge, security, gourmet meals, supplies and specialised nursing care a day set them back $2,421.
But if the high cost of living extremely well and all the stress and mental anguish of being super-rich causes a need for psychiatric care, in 2010 HNWIs could still get a psychiatrist on New York’s Upper East Side for the same rate they could in 2009: $325 per 45-minute session.
For some of the world’s wealthiest, even the standard luxury items in the CLEWI basket may be far beneath them. Last year, Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani moved into a 27-storey home in Mumbai, the first residence valued at a billion dollars. And soon the truly filthy rich will be able to purchase the world’s first billion-dollar yacht. The 500-foot monstrosity is to be called ‘Streets of Monaco’, a floating theme park modelled after Monaco itself – a favourite tax haven for billionaires.
The world’s HNWIs, after a short period of relative hardship and belt-tightening during the worst of the financial crisis, have also been returning now to their ‘passion investments’. Passion investments include expensive self-indulgences (jewellery, gems, watches) and ‘luxury collectibles’ such as extravagant boats, automobiles and jets, art and ‘collectible’ wines.
OF WEALTH CARE AND PRIVATE WEALTH MANAGEMENT
HNWIs are in high demand from ‘private wealth managers’. These are people who make lots of money by making lots and lots of money for the super-rich. Private wealth managers are often HNWIs themselves. They offer ‘wealth care’ services, which may be as much a priority for HNWIs as is health care for ordinary mortals.
The Goldman Sachs Group is big in the wealth care business. A financial behemoth with its tentacles spread around the world in countless subsidiaries, Goldman Sachs is a ‘a leading banking organization’ incorporated, no surprise, into the onshore–offshore tax haven of Delaware. It caters especially to high and ultra high net worth individuals, offering them ‘private wealth management’ (PWM) with a whole range of ‘private wealth products and services’. Most are offshore, safe from taxes.
Goldman Sachs has many friends in very high places, and has even been a useful stepping stone to get them there. Current World Bank president Robert Zoellick is an alumnus of Goldman Sachs where he was vice chair, after his stint as US deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Goldman Sachs has been home to a remarkable number of luminaries that have been given key government positions in the Obama White House. The author Dambisa Moyo also emerged from the ranks at Goldman Sachs. Not surprisingly, she argues in her best-selling book ‘Dead Aid’ that wild west-and-east capitalism is the solution for Africa, a thesis that free-wheeling capitalists just love. The billionaire publisher Steve Forbes liked Moyo’s message so much that he threw her a party at the Four Seasons in New York. The current governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, is also a member of the Goldman Sachs economic club.
Goldman Sachs, by virtue of those who have swelled its ranks over the years and the UHNWIs who use its private wealth management services, exerts enormous influence on governments. It is certain that this influence is not being used to push for financial regulations, transparency in the financial sector, the closing of tax havens or a rethinking of the raison d’être behind the global financial system that so favours HNWIs and UHNWIs.
Goldman Sachs is just one such investment bank. There are many, many others up to the same games.
‘GROW YOUR MONEY TAX-FREE’
Another valuable term in the vocabularies of those wishing to make sure that their immense wealth doesn’t have to be shared with the unwashed masses is ‘cloud banking’. This is a ‘new and innovative concept’ that offers tax avoiders and evaders ‘additional layers of privacy’ for their financial information. Privacy is crucial for those wishing to continue to enjoy the benefits of tax havens around the world where wealth is socked away in layers and layers of secrecy in dummy companies, shell banks, hedge and private equity funds, and trusts.
Cloud banking is offered by people such as R. David Finzer, an American now living in Uruguay, a country he chose ‘because of its long-standing investment friendly climate including no taxation on non-local income and very strong bank secrecy laws’. Finzer has a long history of ‘international corporate planning’ and has been chair of the Conservative Action Foundation in Washington DC and on the executive of the World Anti-Communist League.
His Capital Conservator Group helps HNWIs get around regulations that the US Patriot Act and the G20’s ‘targeting of tax havens’ have put in their tax-free way.[28"> These include Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs) that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries have been bringing in to try to reduce privacy so that two jurisdictions agree to share financial information on individuals they would like to tax. A TIEA can ‘blast a hole in the confidentiality of the jurisdiction where your assets are stored,’ says Capital Conservator. Hence the advent of cloud banking – banking without borders – that hides the information about where assets are stored. Capital Conservator does this by ‘spreading it around the World Wide Web in a disconnected way,’ so vast amounts of money can be rapidly moved to another jurisdiction at the slightest whiff of a TIEA, to another ‘node’. A ‘node’ is a nifty euphemism for tax haven.
Inviting clients to ‘grow your money tax-free’, Capital Conservator explains how it works: ‘To further ensure your privacy, we chose to locate our offices in various countries in the Americas and Europe outside both the USA and the EU. Further, all client records are held in a third country with very strong secrecy laws in trust by a law firm. As such, this private information enjoys a double layer of privacy: strong privacy laws and attorney-client privilege. This privacy can only be pierced if a client is involved in a real, non-tax crime.’[29"> So tax crimes are, well, legal?
FANNING THE FLAMES FOR PROFIT
A final important term is that coined by Naomi Klein, ‘disaster capitalism’, to describe the men and women who may help create disasters, often through neoliberal economic policies and the political turmoil that ensues and then profit from the ‘opportunities’ the disasters offer them.[30">
Disaster capitalism nicely captures the business of alternative investment firms such as Emergent Asset Management,[31"> ‘which offers hedge fund and private equity strategies.’ [32"> In his book ‘Breaking the Code of History’, Emergent’s chief investment officer David Murrin analyses geo-politics and major risks and trends around the world. He says he wrote the book because he has children and wants them to have a future.[33">
Does Emergent Asset, however, call for a concerted global effort for human beings to try to head off these disasters and solve the problems that will surely cause suffering for children all over the world?
No, anything but. Instead, Emergent offers its wealthy clients a whole new series of funds designed to take advantage of each of the ominous global trends outlined in the book. Funds will be designed to ‘benefit’ from expected growing military spending and be built around both Western and emerging defence contractors, as Murrin says China will be at war with the US within 15 years.[34"> He sees great profiteering opportunities in the decline of empires as they tend to suffer from more epidemics, so the fund will buy shares in pharmaceutical companies. And there are also great ways to capitalise on climate change and food shortages, which Emergent is doing by grabbing vast swathes of farmland in southern Africa.
Disaster capitalism. Banking on catastrophe. At least vultures wait until after death to feed on cadavers.
The glossary of greed reveals a great deal about the upside-down values that have created a world where wealth is worshipped, compassion and sharing are disdained, and where greed, vanity, selfishness and cold-blooded ruthlessness are not vices – they have become virtues. They produce and prop up a highly stratified world that has become treacherously top-heavy. So few people now control such a large proportion of the world’s wealth because they’ve reshaped the world for themselves – subverted democracy and laid the groundwork for global turmoil and suffering, laughing all the way to the (offshore) bank.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Joan Baxter is a journalist and award-winning author. Her book ‘Dust from our Eyes: an Unblinkered Look at Africa’ is published by Pambazuka Press.
* ‘Tax us if you Can’ by Khadija Sharife is a short introduction on the subject of tax justice, to be published by Pambazuka Press in October 2011.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
 Forbes: The World’s Billionaires. http://bit.ly/hnZ5RP
 According to World Bank Development Indicators, the global GDP in 2009 was $58.1 trillion. http://bit.ly/fTaXjx
 Risen, James and Lichtblau, Eric. 9 March 2011. Hoard of cash lets Qaddafi extend fight against rebels. New York Times. http://nyti.ms/ejKn1f
 Inman, Phillip. 4 February 2011. Mubarak family fortune could reach $70bn, say experts. Egyptian president has cash in British and Swiss banks plus US and UK property. The Guardian. http://bit.ly/fNiB5n
 Tax Justice Network. March 2005. Briefing paper: The Price of Offshore.
 Shaxson, Nicholas. 2011. Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World. London, UK: Bodley Head
 Tax Justice Network, Financial Secrecy Index. 2009. http://bit.ly/1Dim7m
 Raymond Baker cited in Shaxson, Nicholas. 2011. Treasure Islands – Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World. London, UK: Bodley Head. p 27
 Wahl, Peter. 2008. Superstars in the Emperor’s New Clothes: Hedge Funds and Private Equity Funds – What is at Stake? Berlin: WEED – World Economy, Ecology and Development. p 4
 World Wealth Report 2010. Capgemini & Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. p 4
 Ibid p 3.
 Ibid p 4.
 Decarlo, Scott. 23 September 2010. Forbes Price Index Of Luxury Goods Keeps Pace With Inflation. http://bit.ly/e4L9iV
 Roberts, Laura. 14 October 2010. India's richest man Mukesh Ambani moves into £630m home. The Telegraph.
 O’Connor, Clare. 13 January 2011. Is this the world’s first billion-dollar yacht? Forbes. http://bit.ly/h5XlBy
 World Wealth Report 2010. Op. cit. p 20
 Ibid. pp 20-21
 United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Info. 2 December 2007. http://bit.ly/f5i34M
 Public Notice, US Federal Communications Commission. 23 November 2010. http://www.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2010/db1123/DA-10-2230A1.txt
 Goldman Sachs. Private Wealth Management. http://bit.ly/hk7i1i
 The World Bank. Biography, Robert Zoellick, 11th Chief Executive of the World Bank. http://bit.ly/4GEn9Y
 For a list of these key White House and other influential positions, see: http://the-classic-liberal.com/white-goldman-sachs-house/
 Newsweek. http://bit.ly/fuANuQ
 Capital Conservator. http://bit.ly/ggrsJh [accessed 28 February 2011">
 Capital Conservator. February 2011. Banking Without Borders: The challenge to tax havens and financial privacy requires a fresh approach – and ‘Cloud Banking’ provides the answer. [promotion">. BMI In-flight Magazine: Voyager. p 37
 Offshore Business Network. Day, Aaron A. 18 May 2006. R. David Finzer. http://bit.ly/g3Sahy [accessed 1 March 2011">
[28"> Capital Conservator. February 2011. Op. cit.
[29"> Capital Conservator. http://bit.ly/fDDU9b [accessed 28 February 2011">
[30"> Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada
[31"> Mr. Murrin was unavailable for an interview, although several requests were made.
[32"> Emergent Asset Management. https://www.emergentasset.com/
[33"> Apps, Peter. 7 January 2011. Invest in food – and the horsemen of the apocalypse. Reuters. Available at: http://bit.ly/eFWG4L