An Investment Manager's View on the Top 1%
The following article, and the two addenda that follow, were written by an investment manager who works with very wealthy clients. I knew him from decades ago, but in 2011 he e-mailed me with some concerns he had about what was happening with the economy. What he had to say was informative enough that I asked if he might fashion what he had told me into a document for the Who Rules America Web site. He agreed to do so, but only on the condition that the document be anonymous, because he does not want to jeopardize his relationships with his clients or other investment professionals.
Make no assumptions about the investment manager with respect to race, ethnicity, political perspective, or views on government economic policy; he may or may not fit readers' preconceptions concerning some of these categories. As of 2021, his firm is one of the top 200 advisory firms in the United States, and it manages over $3.5 billion in assets, primarily for highly successful physicians, lawyers, and other professionals, along with a few inheritors. (However, as he also notes in this document, it is not likely that the physicians of today will be be able to save the several millions of dollars that physicians were able to accumulate in the past.)
— G. William Domhoff
I sit in an interesting chair in the financial services industry. Our clients largely fall into the top 1%, have a net worth of $5,000,000 or above, and — if working — make over $300,000 per year. My observations on the sources of their wealth and concerns come from my professional and social activities within this group.
Work by various economists and tax experts make it indisputable that the top 1% controls a widely disproportionate share of the income and wealth in the United States. When does one enter that top 1%? (I'll use "k" for 1,000 and "M" for 1,000,000 as we usually do when communicating with clients or discussing money; thousands and millions take too much time to say.) Available data isn't exact, but a family enters the top 1% or so today with somewhere around $300k to $400k in pre-tax annual income and over $1.2M in net worth. Compared to the average American family with a pre-tax income in the mid-$50k range and net worth around $120k, this probably seems like a lot of money. But, there are big differences even within that top 1%, with the wealth distribution highly skewed towards the top 0.1%.
The Lower Half of the Top 1%
The 99th to 99.5th percentiles largely include physicians, attorneys, upper middle management, and small business people who have done well. Everyone's tax situation is, of course, a little different, but on earned income in this group, we can figure that somewhere around 25% to 30% of total pre-tax income will go to Federal, State, and Social Security taxes — leaving them with around $250k to $300k post-tax. This group makes extensive use of 401(k)s, SEP-IRAs, Defined Benefit Plans, and other retirement vehicles, which defer taxes until distribution during retirement. Typical would be yearly contributions in the $50k to $100k range, leaving our elite working group with yearly cash flows of $175k to $250k after taxes, or about $15k to $20k per month.
Until recently, most studies just broke out the top 1% as a group. Data on net worth distributions within the top 1% indicate that one enters the top 0.5% with about $1.8M, the top 0.25% with $3.1M, the top 0.10% with $5.5M and the top 0.01% with $24.4M. Wealth distribution is highly skewed towards the top 0.01%, increasing the overall average for this group. The net worth for those in the lower half of the top 1% is usually achieved after decades of education, hard work, saving and investing as a professional or small business person. While an after-tax income of $175k to $250k and net worth in the $1.2M to $1.8M range may seem like a lot of money to most Americans, it doesn't really buy freedom from financial worry or access to the true corridors of power and money. That doesn't become frequent until we reach the top 0.1%.
I've had many discussions in the last few years with clients with "only" $5M or under in assets, those in the 99th to 99.9th percentiles, as to whether they have enough money to retire or stay retired. That may sound strange to the 99% not in this group, but generally accepted "safe" retirement distribution rates for a 30 year period are in the 3-5% range, with 4% as the current industry standard. Assuming that the lower end of the top 1% has, say, $1.2M in investment assets, their retirement income will be about $50k per year plus maybe $30k-$40k from Social Security, so let's say $90k per year pre-tax and $75-$80k post-tax if they wish to plan for 30 years of withdrawals. For those with $1.8M in retirement assets, that rises to around $120-150k pretax per year and around $100k after tax. If someone retires with $5M today, roughly the beginning rung for entry into the top 0.1%, they can reasonably expect an income of $240k pretax and around $190k post tax, including Social Security.
While income and lifestyle are all relative, an after-tax income between $6.6k and $8.3k per month today will hardly buy the fantasy lifestyles that Americans see on TV and would consider "rich". In many areas in California or the East Coast, this positions one squarely in the hard working upper-middle class, and strict budgeting will be essential. An income of $190k post tax or $15.8k per month will certainly buy a nice lifestyle but is far from rich. And, for those folks who made enough to accumulate this much wealth during their working years, the reduction in income and lifestyle during retirement can be stressful. Plus, watching retirement accounts deplete over time isn't fun, not to mention the ever-fluctuating value of these accounts and the desire of many to leave a substantial inheritance. Our poor lower half of the top 1% lives well but has some financial worries.
Since the majority of those in this group actually earned their money from professions and smaller businesses, they generally don't participate in the benefits big money enjoys. Those in the 99th to 99.5th percentile lack access to power. For example, most physicians today are having their incomes reduced by HMO's, PPO's and cost controls from Medicare and insurance companies; the legal profession is suffering from excess capacity, declining demand and global outsourcing; successful small businesses struggle with increasing regulation and taxation. I speak daily with these relative winners in the economic hierarchy and many express frustration.
Unlike those in the lower half of the top 1%, those in the top half and, particularly, top 0.1%, can often borrow for almost nothing, keep profits and production overseas, hold personal assets in tax havens, ride out down markets and economies, and influence legislation in the U.S. They have access to the very best in accounting firms, tax and other attorneys, numerous consultants, private wealth managers, a network of other wealthy and powerful friends, lucrative business opportunities, and many other benefits. Most of those in the bottom half of the top 1% lack power and global flexibility and are essentially well-compensated workhorses for the top 0.5%, just like the bottom 99%. In my view, the American dream of striking it rich is merely a well-marketed fantasy that keeps the bottom 99.5% hoping for better and prevents social and political instability. The odds of getting into that top 0.5% are very slim and the door is kept firmly shut by those within it.
The Upper Half of the Top 1%
Membership in this elite group is likely to come from being involved in some aspect of the financial services or banking industry, real estate development involved with those industries, or government contracting. Some hard working and clever physicians and attorneys can acquire as much as $15M-$20M before retirement but they are rare. Those in the top 0.5% have incomes over $500k if working and a net worth over $1.8M if retired. The higher we go up into the top 0.5% the more likely it is that their wealth is in some way tied to the investment industry and borrowed money than from personally selling goods or services or labor as do most in the bottom 99.5%. They are much more likely to have built their net worth from stock options and capital gains in stocks and real estate and private business sales, not from income which is taxed at a much higher rate. These opportunities are largely unavailable to the bottom 99.5%.
Recently, I spoke with a younger client who retired from a major investment bank in her early thirties, net worth around $8M. We can estimate that she had to earn somewhere around twice that, or $14M-$16M, in order to keep $8M after taxes and live well along the way, an impressive accomplishment by such an early age. Since I knew she held a critical view of investment banking, I asked if her colleagues talked about or understood how much damage was created in the broader economy from their activities. Her answer was that no one talks about it in public but almost all understood and were unbelievably cynical, hoping to exit the system when they became rich enough.
Folks in the top 0.1% come from many backgrounds but it's infrequent to meet one whose wealth wasn't acquired through direct or indirect participation in the financial and banking industries. One of our clients, net worth in the $60M range, built a small company and was acquired with stock from a multi-national. Stock is often called a "paper" asset. Another client, CEO of a medium-cap tech company, retired with a net worth in the $70M range. The bulk of any CEO's wealth comes from stock, not income, and incomes are also very high. Last year, the average S&P 500 CEO made $9M in all forms of compensation. One client runs a division of a major international investment bank, net worth in the $30M range and most of the profits from his division flow directly or indirectly from the public sector, the taxpayer. Another client with a net worth in the $10M range is the ex-wife of a managing director of a major investment bank, while another was able to amass $12M after taxes by her early thirties from stock options as a high level programmer in a successful IT company. The picture is clear; entry into the top 0.5% and, particularly, the top 0.1% is usually the result of some association with the financial industry and its creations. I find it questionable as to whether the majority in this group actually adds value or simply diverts value from the US economy and business into its pockets and the pockets of the uber-wealthy who hire them. They are, of course, doing nothing illegal.
I think it's important to emphasize one of the dangers of wealth concentration: irresponsibility about the wider economic consequences of their actions by those at the top. Wall Street created the investment products that produced gross economic imbalances and the 2008 credit crisis. It wasn't the hard-working 99.5%. Average people could only destroy themselves financially, not the economic system. There's plenty of blame to go around, but the collapse was primarily due to the failure of complex mortgage derivatives, CDS credit swaps, cheap Fed money, lax regulation, compromised ratings agencies, government involvement in the mortgage market, the end of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, and insufficient bank capital. Only Wall Street could put the economy at risk and it had an excellent reason to do so: profit. It made huge profits in the build-up to the credit crisis and huge profits when it sold itself as "too big to fail" and received massive government and Federal Reserve bailouts. Most of the serious economic damage the U.S. is struggling with today was done by the top 0.1% and they benefited greatly from it.
Not surprisingly, Wall Street and the top of corporate America are doing extremely well as of June 2011. For example, in Q1 of 2011, America's top corporations reported 31% profit growth and a 31% reduction in taxes, the latter due to profit outsourcing to low tax rate countries. Somewhere around 40% of the profits in the S&P 500 come from overseas and stay overseas, with about half of these 500 top corporations having their headquarters in tax havens. If the corporations don't repatriate their profits, they pay no U.S. taxes. The year 2010 was a record year for compensation on Wall Street, while corporate CEO compensation rose by over 30%, most Americans struggled. In 2010 a dozen major companies, including GE, Verizon, Boeing, Wells Fargo, and Fed Ex paid US tax rates between -0.7% and -9.2%. Production, employment, profits, and taxes have all been outsourced. Major U.S. corporations are currently lobbying to have another "tax-repatriation" window like that in 2004 where they can bring back corporate profits at a 5.25% tax rate versus the usual 35% US corporate tax rate. Ordinary working citizens with the lowest incomes are taxed at 10%.
I could go on and on, but the bottom line is this: A highly complex set of laws and exemptions from laws and taxes has been put in place by those in the uppermost reaches of the U.S. financial system. It allows them to protect and increase their wealth and significantly affect the U.S. political and legislative processes. They have real power and real wealth. Ordinary citizens in the bottom 99.9% are largely not aware of these systems, do not understand how they work, are unlikely to participate in them, and have little likelihood of entering the top 0.5%, much less the top 0.1%. Moreover, those at the very top have no incentive whatsoever for revealing or changing the rules. I am not optimistic.
Addendum, January 2012
A few blogs and emails have disagreed with the views presented in this article. I'll address two of them here:
A New York Times article (Economix, 1/17/12) agrees that the threshold for being in the top 1 per cent in household income is about $380k but states that, based on Fed data, the 1% threshold for net worth is $8.4M. The figure I use is around $1.5M and comes from the IRS. The Fed uses a simple formula based on assets and liabilities at a broad level of analysis with little detail. Using Fed data, about 8% of US households have a net worth exceeding $1M and the median net worth of the top 10% of US families is $1.569M. The IRS uses the estate multiplier technique to calculate the data, a more complex measure based on tax returns, capitalization of earnings power, and other factors. The estate multiplier technique has been around for decades, is more widely used, and in the opinion of many, is the more accurate number. Where the true threshold is located is impossible to determine with accuracy, but my observations in managing money support the lower number or something close to it.
One reader opined that my analysis regarding the bottom half and top half of the top 1% is incorrect and that many business people can amass $20M. Based on my experience with at least a thousand high net worth folks over the last couple of decades, I disagree. The folks in the top 0.5% and particularly the top 0.1% are in my experience very likely to have been the recipients of largesse in the investment industry or banking industry, and this includes those at the top of corporations where compensation is tied to options and stock or those who have careers near the top of the banking and investment industry. There are exceptions, of course.
Let's make the assumption that someone who has an income in the top 1% would reasonably be expected to retire in the top 1%. Everybody's tax situation is a little different, depending upon the state they live in and the deductions they can make. Someone making $380k gross will likely pay about a third of that in Federal and State taxes, leaving about $250k after taxes. Generally, someone making $380k will want to live fairly well, certainly not at the level of the average dual working couple with an income around $55k. Let's say they spend $150k/year, hardly a high end budget in most of the US. That leaves about $100k per year to invest. It is unlikely that even with investment success they are going to amass $10M or $20M by the end of their careers. This fits my observations working with many physicians in many different specialties, and it is generally getting harder to make money in medicine than in the past. Older physicians are retiring today with around $3M to $8M, with just a few above that. Younger physicians are making between $200k and $400k annually — with a few specialties above that — and their typical annual investment contributions run between $50k and $100k.
The bottom line here is that I think it is very difficult to create a net worth in excess of $10M from income alone. Yes, sports stars, entertainers, and some business people do — but they are rare. Those with a higher net worth tend to acquire most of their net worth from capital gains, not income that has been saved and invested. Large capital gains tend to come when private businesses are acquired by private or public companies with stock or when executives are paid directly by options or stock. Wall Street and the banking industry are frequently involved, either directly or indirectly.
Addendum, January 2014
Since I wrote my analysis of the wealth and income of the top 1% for WhoRulesAmerica.net in mid-2011, economic and financial events have supported my original thesis. Wealth and income are streaming to the very top of the system and, particularly, to those who are direct or indirect beneficiaries of the financial industry. Professionals and workers have slipped further behind. The Federal Reserve's near-zero interest-rate policy and QE programs have pushed over 3 trillion dollars into the economy since 2009, stimulating speculation and Wall Street profits — while punishing conservative investors and savers with record low interest rates. The US government's bail-out programs, student and car loan subsidies, state support, and countless other expenditures have cost future taxpayers around $7 trillion. Much of this money has already been spent; at best, it created anemic economic growth on Main Street, while greatly helping Wall Street and masking a weak underlying recovery in the US economy.
The years 2009-2012 saw an enormous transfer of wealth upwards to the top 1% and, particularly, the top 0.1%. According to economists working with Census data at the Pew Foundation, from 2009 through 2011 (the latest available data), the net worth of the top 7% gained 28% while the bottom 93% dropped 4%. These wide variances were driven by gains in stock, bond, and real estate prices. Since the end of 2011, these markets have continued to climb, further enhancing wealth and income at the top.
According to the Census Bureau, the official U.S. Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality — was 46.9 in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. It rises to 57.4 if capital gains are included, and capital gains primarily boost the incomes of the rich and very rich. Depending upon how income is defined, the US Gini varies from 37.0 (OECD) to 57.4 (Fed data). The CIA Factbook ranks the US as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini of 45, and the OECD ranks it the 26th most unequal out of 33 developed countries. Most developed countries have Gini's in the high 20's to mid 30's, and even countries like Egypt (34.4) and Yemen (37.7) are more equal. The Gini can also be applied to net worth distributions, in which the U.S. scores in the very high mid-80s.
Under the surface, the division between the top 7% and the rest looks even worse. Job creation has been substantially part-time, low-paying and concentrated in those over 40, while the labor force participation rate, at multi-decade lows and declining, makes current employment look much stronger than it is. Long-term unemployment is at record highs, as the number of Americans "not in the labor force" and yet "not retiring" have consistently increased. Cumulative inflation-adjusted GDP growth since 2009 is about 8%, well below average. Food stamp use has exploded from 27 million to 47 million over the last four years. Home ownership has declined almost every month since early 2009, and housing prices have been driven up by Wall Street speculation, foreign money, and US investors hoping to rent out or flip homes for a profit. Inflation-adjusted median US income has declined about 6% since 2009. I could go on. The numbers I mention here come from the best available Federal Reserve data and US government statistical agencies, both of which slant methodologies to recast the economy in the best possible light.
So, overall, things are not looking better economically for 9 out of 10 Americans. Research from Thomas Piketty at the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez at UC Berkeley indicates that, adjusting for inflation, the bottom 90% of workers have seen a decline in their income of 10.7% from 2002 through 2012; meanwhile, the top 1.0% to 0.5% have seen a gain of 11.3%, and the top 0.1% to 0.01% have seen a gain of 29.5%. (One enters the top 1% today with an income around $400k and the top 0.1% with an income around $2.5M.) The top 1% had an average investment net worth somewhere around $3 million at the end of 2013 based on IRS numbers, and $6 million based on Federal Reserve numbers.
One might think that physicians, America's highest-paid professional group, would be largely exempt from the economic currents affecting most other Americans. This isn't so. Medscape, a key physician website, reports that as of 2013, mean income for male physicians in all specialties was $259k; for female physicians, it was $199k. Family practice doctors and internists earned the least, averaging around $175k. Orthopedic surgeons earned the most, averaging around $405k; they are the only physician specialty falling within the top 1% by income. If we assume an income of $259k before taxes, our male physician filing jointly would bring home about $200k after taxes annually (or about $16,600 per month). In most of the U.S., it is likely that living well, raising a family, and other expenses would make it difficult to save more than $4,000 to $5,000 per month, or around $50k to $60k per year.
If our hypothetical physician saves and invests for 35 years, he will have contributed less than $2 million dollars to retirement plans; with growth over time, the absolute number will be larger but the purchasing power of each dollar will be less. Future returns in investment markets are somewhat unpredictable, as is inflation. Thus, an average physician — while doing very well by most people's standards — is unlikely to earn or accumulate enough to place him or her in the top 1% by income or net worth at the end of their career. Opportunity for most Americans, even physicians, is decreasing, even while net worth and income accelerate for those at the very top of the system. If an average physician today is unlikely to make it into the top 1% (Piketty and Saez's end-of-2012 data show that the 1% income line is crossed with an income of $396k per year), then it seems pretty clear that crossing that line via income, savings, and investments will be impossible for nearly every American in the future.