The super-rich are different from you and me. It's not just that they have more money. It's that they spend more. Much, much more.
In fact, the super-rich spend so much more of their mountains of money, according to a new line of thinking among academics, that they may provide a public service by smoothing out the little dents and valleys in the global economy. As scads of Russians, Chinese, Indians and South Americans have joined the billionaires club because of the rise of emerging markets' industrial might, worldwide recessions have become much fewer in number and far slighter in severity than in past decades.
This makes sense, even if it doesn't make you feel better. For just when many average people in the U.S. or Europe are slowing down their consumption of goods and services because of the loss of a job or a pending home foreclosure, there is an increasing number of super-rich worldwide to fill in the spending gap. It's sort of a perverse fulfillment of the trickle-down theory.
Rather than being resentful of the super-rich, perhaps we should all be grateful. The next time you run into a super-rich guy at your local Bentley dealer, give him a hug.
The numbers are staggering and almost incomprehensible. According to research by Ajay Kapur, an analyst at Citigroup, the wealthiest 1 million people in the world account for as much spending as 60 million other households. The disparity between the bottom 99% and the top 1% has made any other class distinctions in the richest countries almost irrelevant. Welcome to the new world "plutonomy," where economic growth is powered by, and largely consumed, by the wealthy few.
This is useful to know at a time of fears that a decline in U.S. home prices could sink the U.S. economy, for it only takes one new free-spending Mumbai or Moscow zillionaire to make up for tens of thousands of faltering Americans missing their mortgage payments.
Fortunately, there are plenty more than that in Russia alone. The swift rise in the value of natural gas -- sometimes called "blue gold" -- as well as nickel, aluminum and titanium, has helped create at least two dozen Russian billionaires and thousands of multimillionaires who are spreading their wealth around.
The Wall Street Journal
reports that the new "blingsheviks" are buying castles in Germany, Warhol prints in New York and polo ponies in Argentina. One in five homes in London's exclusive Mayfair district is now owned by a Russian, according to the
A leader in this category is Roman Abramovich, the 11th-richest man in the world, who has three yachts that stretch 161 feet, 282 feet and 377 feet, respectively, and who has commissioned a fourth that will eclipse the world's largest Arab-owned yacht, at 525 feet plus.
sold $3.65 billion worth of fine art at auction last year, 30% more than in 2005, and Russian art is a fast-growing category.
China, meanwhile, is now home to 500,000 millionaires who are proud to show off their gold-plated toilets, Versace-designed bedrooms and driveways loaded with BMWs, Escalades and Ferraris. In India, where the economy is growing at 8% per year,
reports that 83,000 people are millionaires, up 16% from two years ago. To help them spend their fortunes, Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss, Valentino, Gucci and Fendi have opened stores in the major Indian cities.
Here in the U.S., the share of total income going to the richest 1% of Americans rose to a record 17.4% in 2005. Meanwhile, the average worker's take-home pay, adjusted for inflation, has advanced just 0.3% since 2001 while the economy has swelled by 16%. If you exclude the value of primary residences, the U.S. has 2 million people with a net worth of over $1 million, according to Merrill Lynch; including primary residences, the number is around 8 million.
In addition to big yachts and big homes, the super-rich are naturally into big jets, big vacations, big jewels, big art and lots of fancy clothes. If you're looking for an investment angle and conclude that you should focus on things that these folks buy, you're on the right track.
The obvious plays are jewelry retailer
, leather goods maker
and auctioneer Sotheby's -- and all are trading at all-time highs. They'll all probably continue to do well in this environment, so if you don't already own them, by all means add them to your portfolio on dips.
A less-exploited way to play the "plutonomy" is through the rapid advance of the sale and leasing of jet aircraft. I mean, what's the point of being a billionaire unless you can zoom from your home in Monte Carlo to a meeting in Berlin without ever scuffing your Ferragamos in a public airport? In London alone, the number of private jet journeys has reached 300,000 a year and is growing by 10% annually, according to a published report.
The king of the skies in the 10-seat category is the Gulfstream 550, complete with sofa, two beds and interior panels made from mahogany. No plastic allowed. That and numerous cousins are made by a division of
, which is a great buy right now at $77. With prospects bright both for private and defense jets and with valuation reasonable, shares should ascend to $100 over the next 12 months.
A much riskier name in the business is Canada-based
, which makes the Global Express jet owned by director Steven Spielberg and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. The plane can fly between any two points in the world with only one stop, and it zooms from New York to Tokyo without a break.
Some more-unusual plays on billionaires, and in my opinion potentially the best, are three recently floated companies that own fleets of jets and lease them to fractional ownership service providers, airlines, public companies and cargo haulers.
, based in Connecticut, sports a $2.3 billion market capitalization, owns 65 planes and pays a 5.6% dividend yield.
( GLS), based in Ireland, is in the process of acquiring 41 aircraft from General Electric and has a commitment to purchase as much as an additional $300 million worth. It offers a 7.4% annual dividend yield.
, based in Amsterdam, is a $2.4 billion company that owns around 300 planes and also manages and services planes on behalf of others.
Trading at $36, $26 and $28, respectively, they all have an opportunity to plug into the wave of global wealth and commerce to trade as much as 25% higher, with dividends, over the next 12 months.
Keep that up for a couple of decades, and you could buy your own Gulfstream.
At the time of publication, Jon Markman did not own or control shares of companies mentioned in this column.
Jon D. Markman is editor of the independent investment newsletter The Daily Advantage. While Markman cannot provide personalized investment advice or recommendations, he appreciates your feedback;
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