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What Do the Ultra-rich Do With Their Money?

When money can buy all sorts of indulgences, what sets the super rich apart?

In these post-crisis days, resentment rages against the one-percenters, yet they continue to fascinate. Perhaps people who rail against huge income divides can’t decide if they desire an egalitarian utopia or the spoils from uber-capitalism. What do the ultra-rich do with their money? And are they really so different from you and me?

Two famous American authors notoriously debated this. F. Scott Fitzgerald – who chronicled the Jazz Age and authored The Great Gatsby – believed them to be different. To which Ernest Hemingway laconically replied: “Yes, they have more money.”

Literary historians now believe this exchange, recounted by Hemingway, who gave the better quip, never really happened. But a quotation from Fitzgerald’s short story The Rich Boy reveals his thinking: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me…in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” Perhaps. But much depends on how “rich” is defined.
If the threshold is a bare million, studies suggest that almost one in every five people in Singapore makes the cut. The criteria for ultra-high net worth individuals are more stringent – at least US$30 million (S$38 million) in investible capital. The rich may be judged by their possessions and many new millionaires, especially, flaunt wealth.

The irony is that this can lead to a kind of millionaire’s uniform of must-haves – like GCB, or Good Class Bungalow, a Bentley coupe, and bling watches. Otherwise, they may not be so different from the working professional. But the rich that Fitzgerald identified embody more than this. One-percenters, billionaires and those born rich differ not only in terms of the size of their fortune, but also in how long they have been wealthy.

For, while a few started with nothing, many more billionaires typically start with tens of millions before really building their fortune. Most are relatively old money and tend not to show off.

My experience with billionaires tells me this: Spotting them is akin to detecting a cheetah on safari. They are rare and take flight at any moment. Take George Soros, the controversial financier whom I hosted for a talk at the Singapore Exchange some years back.

Meeting subsequently in places like Bangkok and Istanbul, we would debate the financial crisis, American power and other global issues. Over time, I met his sons, and then girlfriend. Soros remarried last year at age 83, to a 42-year-old.

Soros enjoys his celebrity and widens his horizons and networks – a voluble and thinking billionaire. Others may go for the thrills.

Re-watch the Steve McQueen classic The Thomas Crown Affair. A bored billionaire takes to crime – not to pad his fortune but to have fun in an intricate, high-stakes game. That penchant for thrill-seeking may explain Virgin Group’s Richard Branson with his hot-air ballooning, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison with his state-of-the-art racing boats.

But not all billionaires are comfortable with the headlines. They consciously keep a low profile and limit their circle of friends and acquaintances. Here’s a snapshot of lunch with the low-profile, ultra-rich in Asia.

You drive to the skyscraper he owns, and heavy-set security guards welcome you to park in the driveway. A trusted PA ushers you up to a beautiful penthouse, with a table set for your meal. Then the food is served – perhaps porridge or a favourite local dish. Tea or warm water is offered, not wine.

Your host enters and explains that this is the simple meal he prefers when not compelled to entertain or be entertained. You both speak off the cuff (sometimes an adult son or daughter might sit, in but not a note-taker). Then, after perhaps an hour and a half, lunch concludes with fruit.

I enjoy such encounters, and it’s not just the conversation. There is something about the juxtaposition of humble fare in a plush setting.

Anyone with a credit card can go to a restaurant and order just about anything. The penthouse meal is modest but actually requires more resources. You need a PA, an old pantry auntie, and a driver who knows where to go and what to order. Only with considerable help, and even more dedication, can things be organised to the billionaire’s preferences.

Yet, just about every CEO and mere millionaire has a PA and driver, and this thus leads to the first thing a billionaire might consider acquiring: a butler. Having someone coordinate and even anticipate your every need can be invaluable.

This service can be enhanced. Perhaps too much so. A royal from a neighbouring country, for example, never carries money, a briefcase or even notes for a meeting. You must be unencumbered, he advised, and always have your hands free to greet people. His assumption, much like in the Despicable Me movies, is that there will always be minions.

Greater eccentricities abound. Take the germophobic and hermit-like Howard Hughes, or Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, who reportedly drives a 20-year-old Volvo, recycles tea bags, and waits for post-Christmas sales to buy wrapping paper. Other billionaires put money down for cloned dinosaurs, space travel and football clubs. Their choices may seem like indulgences but could turn out to be oddly astute investments.

Yet, whether shrewd or silly, few in his circle will quiz the billionaire’s decision. Surrounded by a butler and minions, he may never hear anything but “yes” and the echo of every wish. This then explains the second toy the billionaire needs: a jester.

The costume need not come with a three-point hat and bells. He might be called adviser, “consigliere” or perhaps even “independent director”. But the essential characteristic of the role – like Shakespeare’s Feste – is that he should have the right to speak his mind, even to the point of contradicting the billionaire.

For no matter how clever he is, every billionaire is well advised to have some checks on his most extravagant behaviour. The best fools do so with humour, rather than causing offence.

Toy No. 3 is an altogether-more-serious matter and limited to a small subset of billionaires: adopting a public cause.

George Soros initiated the Open Society Institute in 1979 and, over the decades, has expanded its work to nurture vibrant democracies around the world. The institute, now known as Open Society Foundations, has promoted democracies across Eastern Europe, as the Communist Wall collapsed, and in Burma, when it was still ruled by generals.

This is not only for Western billionaires. Two from Hong Kong – Ronnie Chan of Hang Lung Properties and Victor Fung of Li & Fung – have adopted public institutions. Chan’s Asia Society in Hong Kong recently opened its new headquarters in a conserved ammunitions dump next to Pacific Place. Fung founded the Fung Global Institute, bringing on board a former central banker and a Nobel laureate in economics to help build its research clout.

Low-profile billionaires, too, may support causes. But their gifts – often made anonymously – tend to be uncontroversial, like to the elderly and children in need.

The rich might or might not be different from us. But they are different from one another. At some point, most people seek not just money and luxuries, but also to find and express oneself and what one truly upholds. The billionaire’s aims may be more similar to ours than initially thought.