The last time the market was as euphoric and as complacent as it is now, was in the happy go lucky days of 2006 when every day stocks surged without a care in the world, when Lehman bankers were looking to a comfortable retirement after cashing out their stock (then trading north of $70), when the only question was which mega M&A and supermega LBO will hit next, and when the then-brand new Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said there is nothing to worry about because subprime was contained and because home prices in the US just can not possibly drop. Not surprisingly, late 2006 was also when Citigroup held its first and only Plutonomy symposium: a joyous celebration of the 0.001%, or as Citi called them, "The Uber-rich, the plutonomists who are likely to see net worth-income ratios surge, driving luxury consumption", adding "Time to re-commit to plutonomy stocks – Binge on Bling. Equity multiples appear too low, the profit share of GDP is high and likely going higher, stocks look likely to beat housing, and we are bullish on equities."
Wait what? Was there really a time 8 years before the French economist Piketty bashed (and made millions in the process) class and wealth inequality, when one of the world's soon to be most insolvent banks had a symposium in which the bank pulled a page right out of pre-revolutionary France and celebrated the world's mega rich?
Yes, and that's not all.
In a trilogy of reports authored by Citi's then head of global srategy, Ajay Kapur (who subsequently quit Citi, tried his hand at running a hedge fund, failed, went to Deutsche Bank to head the bank's Asian equity strategy, failed, and has for the past year been working at Bank of America in that pluotcracy mecca, Hong Kong), couldn't find enough words of praise to explain just how great the brave new world is, one in which the 0.1% control about half of the world's financial assets, and said, on September 29, 2006, that "we think the balance sheets of the rich are in great shape, and are likely to continue to improve."
In retrospect we now know he couldn't be more wrong, and as events just two years later proved, it required a coordinated, global multi-trilion bailout of the entire financial system (which is still ongoing), to avoid the total collapse of the balance sheets of the rich.
However, the flip side of this ongoing intervention by central banks has meant that the (merely) uber rich in 2006 have since become uberest rich, and the nascent Plutonomy of the mid 2000s has morphed into a giant monster unseen at any time before in history.
And since the class divide of society has only gotten worse, here are some of Citi's observations on Plutonomy back then, which are even more applicable now.
From Citi's September 29, 2006 report:
Plutonomy – the story so far...
Over the last 20 years or so, in certain countries, the rich have been getting substantially richer. The share of the top 1% of the population of income has grown substantially in countries such as the US, UK and Canada. The countries, which apparently tolerate income inequality, are what we call plutonomy countries – economies powered by a relatively small number of rich people.
What has driven this? We see three drivers. Firstly, the bull market in financial assets – particularly equities – as inflation has fallen, has benefited those whose assets have been invested, particularly in equities as the disinflation was also accompanied by strong earnings growth as margins rose.
The current analog: the Fed-induces record breaking rally since the 666 lows hit in early 2009
Secondly, the rise of managerial capitalism, with CEO remuneration increasingly tied into EPS growth and equity performance.
Which should explain the record surge in corporate stock buyabcks. After all, yield-squeezed bondholders have to pay to make management (and activist shareholders) wealthier than ever before.
Finally, as with previous waves of plutonomy – such as sixteenth century Spain, seventeenth century Holland, Industrial Revolution Britain, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties in the US – the ongoing technological revolution has generated a new wave of ultra-high net worth individuals.
... Such as a ludicrous $40 billion valuation of a taxi-alternative service or a several hundred billion market cap for yet another "cool, hip du jour" social network, all perfectly rational and which clearly have nothing to do with the endless pool of zero-cost money that VCs can recycle into perpetually unprofitable projects
To be sure, being uber-wealthy is not without its drawback. As Citi explained back in 2005, there is inflation, and then there is "inflation for the uber rich":
It's Never Been More Expensive To Be Rich...
Another new data point we have is the CLEW (Cost of Living ExtremelyWell) Index from Forbes Magazine for 2005 (in our original Plutonomy note back in October, we didn’t have the latest data point for the year 2005).
CLEWI is an inflation index of the cost of luxury goods. It measures such things as the cost of suite at the Four Seasons in New York (up 15% year on year) and a kilo of Imperial Beluga caviar (at US$6840, up 40% year on year). In 2005, the CLEWIndex rose 4%, while US CPI rose at 3.6%. Luxury goods still have relative pricing power. The 0.4% gap might not sound all that impressive, but bear in mind that a stronger US dollar, probably helped check this inflation rate (many luxury goods come from Europe, but the CLEWI is a measure in dollars). At any rate, the year to year fortunes of the CLEWI versus the CPI are less relevant. The long-term chart says it all (Figure 4). The most recent data point just confirms that in the search for pricing power, we’d rather be in luxury goods, than low end consumer businesses.
Surely everyone feels the pain resulting from the rising costs of living for the uber wealthy.
Sarcasm aside, the biggest question on everyone's mind is how does the current episode of peak-Plutocracy end. Back in 2005/2006 Citi saw nothing but bright skies ahead for the world's mega rich, and yet there already were ripples forming...
The risks to plutonomy
Our thesis is that the plutonomists are likely to get even richer over the coming years. This could mean global imbalances get even larger, without the planet getting knocked of its axis and sucked into the cosmos.
But this thesis is not without its risks. Plutonomies have existed before and they have come to an end. To this end we see four primary risks.
- The first, war and/or inflation.
- Secondly, financial collapse.
- Three, the end of the technological revolution.
- Finally, political pressure to end the increase in income and wealth inequality.
Looking back over time, wars have been pretty bad times for wealth. Both because of the destruction of physical assets, and/or confiscation of wealth... Global conflict/revolution on a scale that could destroy the wealth of the plutonomy countries looks to us unlikely in the short term.
Secondly, financial collapse. As much of the wealth of the plutonomists is held in one shape or other in financial wealth (as opposed to land or property), the state of the financial system is important. Financial collapse, as in the Great Depression in the US, would be a serious challenge to the plutonomists. While we have worried periodically about systemic financial risk, say in the aftermath of the LTCM debacle, it is beyond us to speculate about financial collapse. This would however be a serious issue for the rich.
A third challenge would be the end of the wave of technological revolution. The great plutonomy waves of previous centuries, such as the Gilded Age, the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the era of Dutch supremacy, were often associated with technological and financial progress. Economies advanced through progress, with the gains in the first instance disproportionately going to the innovator and risk takers. Were the technology revolution to dissipate, it is likely that the income gains would channel less to the top. Furthermore, technology waves are usually associated with productivity gains, which in turn tend to help keep inflation low and profit growth high. This in turn being a major source of financial wealth creation. So an end of this positive spur would be unhelpful to plutonomy. We see the current internet and communications revolution as being far from dead.
Perhaps the most immediate challenge to Plutonomy comes from the political process. Ultimately, the rise in income and wealth inequality to some extent is an economic disenfranchisement of the masses to the benefit of the few. However in democracies this is rarely tolerated forever.
One of the key forces helping plutonomists over the last 20 years has been the rise in the profit share – the flip side of the fall in the wage share in GDP. As plutonomists or capitalists tend to be long the profit share, they have benefited from trends like globalization and the productivity revolution, disproportionately. However, labor has, relatively speaking, lost out.
We see the biggest threat to plutonomy as coming from a rise in political demands to reduce income inequality, spread the wealth more evenly, and challenge forces such as globalization which have benefited profit and wealth growth.
Globalization has come in for its fair share of attack of late. And political attention on immigration and protectionism is never far from the surface. As we suggested in our note in October last year, reactionary political forces are likely to rise as globalization persists and the losers in developed economies gain in numbers. To an extent we see this happening in Europe, for example, where the rise in the profit share (fall in the wage share) has come at the same time as the rise of right-wing, generally anti-immigration parties.
On the other hand, ageing populations in countries where there are developed and well-financed pension schemes, and a big equity component in these, are probably more tolerant of a rising profit share. As individuals move from being workers to retirees, their incomes shift from being earned as wages, to dividends and savings, which are more linked to profits. This would suggest that in the UK and US for example, demographics might support – politically – a higher profit share, though this might not hold true, for example, in a country like France.
So, is plutonomy under threat politically? We are keeping an eye on this one. At the moment, it is too early to make this call. Calls for protectionism and an end to immigration grow louder by the day, but they are difficult to measure. But a substantial percentage of Americans are in favor of repealing the estate tax (though only 2%, roughly, will ever pay it), which does not resonate as a population determined to destroy wealth inequality. The political process is the greatest threat to plutonomy. We don’t see it as a threat today in most countries. But we are alert to changes here.
Back in 2006 Citi ultimately ended up being very, very wrong, however in a way that ultimately made the rich whose financial paper wealth was about to disappear even richer, courtesy of the biggest taxpayer-funded wealth transfer in history. As a result those who were merely uber rich a decade ago have been wealthier (if only on paper).
Our own view is that the rich are likely to keep getting even richer, and enjoy an even greater share of the wealth pie over the coming years. We think rising profit margins will keep profit growth strong, and equities are at any rate undervalued. And the rich tend to be disproportionately exposed to the equity markets. While there are challenges to this, not least through populations/the political process demanding a more “equitable” share of the wealth, in the short term we think the trend of the rich getting richer is likely to persist. Plutonomy related stocks should, we think, continue to see strong demand and inflation-beating pricing power.
Here, Citi was absolutely spot-on accurate. However, the question now stands: since there is a finite amount of wealth that can be transferred from the expiring global middle class, and since everything above that is merely dilution from excess printing of fiat money, inquiring minds want to know: is the world financial system due for another massive collapse, one which will even further accelerate the wealth redistribution, or is the world's population so zombified that nothing can ever possibly tips the scales ever again, and the lesson from the French revolution, when an unprecedented amount of wealth and power was held by a precious few, have been forever lost on the world and its citizens?