For the better part of the last decade, the twin topics of increasing income inequality and middle-class downward mobility have festered beneath the surface of the national debate. Occupy Wall Street came and went, but even before protesters brought these subjects into daily discourse last fall, the issue of class warfare was being raised five years ago by an unlikely spear-carrier, Warren Buffett, who declared the rich were waging a very successful war against the middle class.
Most of the so-called 1% do not see it that way, even if a surprising number of them sympathize with Buffett and some of the issues raised by protesters. According to a survey conducted late last year by HNW Inc., half of Americans making more than $340,000 a year don't think they are part of some economic elite.
"Michael Moore isn't the only one percenter who's in denial," wrote Robert Frank, the author of The Wall Street Journal's Wealth Blog. In his recent book, The High-Beta Rich, Frank chronicles the tales of individuals who make money quickly and who frequently lose it even faster.
Early in the book, there are entertaining scenes of two repo men, one a former WWF wrestler, chasing a retired NFL player with a drug habit on an airport tarmac as he tries to fly his private jet, for which payments are late, out of the country. Frank interviews another former billionairess who once owned the Yellowstone Club, whose members included Bill Gates and Dan Quayle. Now her phone service has been cut off and the coral in her fish tank has been repossessed.
Many of the manic tales in Frank's book might make a good movie script, but they don't square with the reality financial advisors see in their daily conversations with clients, most of whom are in the top 5%. "These are the anomalies," says Russ Prince, proprietor of Prince & Associates, a research firm specializing in the affluent.
Absent the mania, Frank's argument that clients are living in a far more fluid universe is on point. The world is growing less hierarchical. "Most people who earn $1 million a year don't repeat [with any consistency]," Prince says.
But there is another reality confronting advisors. Many millionaires next door overleveraged themselves during the last decade, often with a second retirement home that is under water. American homeowners facing mortgage debt that's higher than their homes' value, as their Japanese counterparts did in the 1990s, have found their insecurity has only worsened.
At a point in their lives when they could barely afford to make a mistake, many people have. Many advisors' clients are at or near retirement age, so the financial crisis could not have come at a worse time.
Ironically, the crisis served to temporarily narrow the income/wealth equality gap in a most undesirable way. It wasn't because the middle class enjoyed an increase in income or living standards. It was because many folks at the top saw their incomes and portfolios slashed by 50% or more.
For most advisors' clients, the pain may be real. Someone whose net worth falls from $5 million to $3 million is likely to see his or her lifestyle affected more than someone who experiences a decline from $500 million to $300 million. "[Former Lehman Brothers CEO] Dick Fuld is still rich," Prince notes, even though he may be quite unhappy with the events of the last five years.
Demographics may play as pivotal a role in the gap between the rich and middle class as taxes or other factors. Cathy McBreen, a managing director at the Spectrem Group, reports that the average middle-class millionaire tracked by her firm (a person with assets between $1 million and $5 million) is 63 years old. It is hardly a coincidence that income inequality is widening at precisely the moment that a large proportion of Americans are reaching their early 60s, typically most people's peak earning years.
Another reason for client discontent is that the volatility in the markets has mirrored the volatility in many millionaires' lives. As they have had to deal with two 50%-plus bear markets in a single decade, clients are no different from any other economic agents in an increasingly dynamic, fast-moving world that waits for no one. When a top corporate executive loses his job and waits a year to find another one paying 30% less, or when a small business owner sees her company suffer a 40% decline in revenues, as might have happened in 2009, it is bound to make them more cautious, Prince says.
Across the nation, the wide variances in the income of the top 0.05% in different states means wild swings in revenues. If Facebook successfully completes its IPO this spring, the state of California will enjoy a one-time bonanza as people become millionaires and billionaires overnight. At the same time, states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut currently are wrestling with spending reductions as they confront the contraction in the securities and investment banking industries.
Despite a recovery that is almost three years old, consumers' aversion to financial commitments extends to all ranks of the income and wealth ladders.
Homeownership has declined from 69% to 66%, as more people opt to rent. Car leasing is approaching an all-time high, with an assist from low interest rates. As for the ultimate commitments, even marriage and birth rates have been declining in the last few years.
For financial advisors, this reluctance to spend remains obvious. Clients are "evaluating the number of trips they take, the kind of trips they take, and they may hold on to cars longer," says Ross Levin, president of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn. His firm's clients typically have between $3 million and $20 million, and there isn't as much of a disparity in attitude as one might think.
Even at higher levels of wealth, spending doesn't generate the psychic effect it once did. "It has let up a little bit, but clients are more conscious of what they spend," says John LaPenn, the CEO of Boston-based Federal Street Advisors, whose average client has $50 million. Reducing their outlays "gives them a sense of control," he explains. "You can't control the capital markets."
Clients may have grown resigned to portfolio volatility, but other, more pressing issues are causing anxiety. Both Levin and LaPenn report they have many clients with children graduating from top universities and law schools who can't land a job.
All the focus on wealth and income may be disguising a far more serious gap emerging in American society that centers on culture. This is the theme of Charles Murray's provocatively titled new book, Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010.
In 1960, the bank CEO, the local mailman and the truck driver shared a common culture in that they probably all watched Bob Hope and Lawrence Welk. After all, they had little choice. CEOs and postal workers may have inhabited different worlds, but they were adjacent enough to occasionally cross paths. Most people who were successful worked long and hard, gradually accumulating their wealth. Because their businesses created jobs in their communities and products and services people could use, achievement earned them respect.
Fast-forward to 2010. Murray paints equally disturbing pictures of both the middle class and elites today. Rising divorce rates and more single-parent households are placing financial pressures on Middle America at the same time employers are becoming much less paternalistic as they address the forces of globalization.
Today, the elites and the middle class occupy separate universes. Politically incorrect though it may sound, Murray ascribes many of the problems afflicting white middle-class America to the same causes that Daniel Patrick Moynihan controversially attributed to black America's lack of advancement more than 40 years ago.
Working-class whites used to have a strong work ethic, but Murray argues that's a thing of the past. As evidence, he notes that in 1968, 97% of white males between 30 and 49 years old whose highest educational attainment was no more than a high school diploma were participating in the labor force, either by working or seeking employment. Before the Great Recession was apparent in March 2008, that figure had declined to 88%, meaning one out of eight white working-class men wasn't even looking for a job.
Furthermore, Murray notes that the percentage of these men with jobs who are working less than 40 hours a week has climbed from 10% in 1960 to 20% in 2008. But one could easily argue that this is the result of changing dynamics in the labor market favoring project workers and freelancers over full-timers with their attendant benefits, not some supposed lack of work ethic.
Murray relishes inciting controversies that will inflame mainstream discourse and that other sociologists assiduously avoid. In his book The Bell Curve, he attacked affirmative action. Through the granular analysis of IQ and other testing statistics, he essentially argued, among other things, that while many intelligent young African-Americans at Ivy League schools had the brains for universities like Columbia and Brown, few truly belonged at Harvard, Murray's alma mater. Well, excuse me.
Murray's view of the disconnected white elites is equally harsh. It's not just the CEOs and their "unseemly" compensation he singles out. From Beverly Hills to Chestnut Hill to Manhasset to Hillsborough, these elites live in their own cocoons and look down on Middle America in a way elites in the post-World War II era never did. Their view of the middle class could easily be encapsulated by James Carville's unfortunate comment about Paula Jones, when he said, "Drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park and there's no telling what you'll come up with."
Intelligence, rather than income, prints most of the admission tickets to the new upper class. Because they often marry fellow graduates of the same elite universities, their children tend to be intelligent but wind up living in ever more insular worlds. The income and wealth just naturally follow. According to several reviews, Murray himself chose to raise his family in Burkittsville, Md., precisely so his own children could grow up outside some elitist Beltway bubble.
The flashpoints both Frank's and Murray's theses raise about our fragmenting society represent conversations worth having. Frank is undoubtedly correct that income and wealth are fluid and vary over one's career, but their variances are much higher for certain business owners and financial services executives than they are for professionals like doctors and lawyers.
Murray's troubling analysis of an increasingly stratified society pinpoints several serious problems, yet he fails to prove that declining morality is the root cause. Indeed, his decision to pick 1960, the midpoint of a unique era in American economic history, as a starting point inevitably influences his declinist conclusions.
At that time, the U.S. was the world's only dominant economic superpower. Nations like Germany and Japan were still rebuilding their industrial infrastructure, while the Soviet Union was locked in a losing arms race that consumed 25% to 30% of its GDP and would eventually bankrupt it.
Liberals longingly look to this era as a utopian one, where prosperity was shared, higher education was affordable, top tax rates were far north of 60% and Ayn Rand, who authored Atlas Shrugged in 1957, was viewed as an amoral woman. Unfortunately, that era, characterized by millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs, ultimately proved to be an unsustainable, transient aberration, just as the mid-19th century was when half the nation was healthy, happy and well-fed working in agriculture.
Half a century may be a long time, but by making 2010 his endpoint, Murray conveniently finds a time when social dislocation is so pervasive that it can help his argument. As any advisor knows, an academic seeking to make a case for or against a certain asset class can produce the desired result by selecting the right time frame. Murray's solutions-be a good neighbor and good family man and find a career you like that suits your talents-are fine and well-meaning. They are also thin gruel, or Band-Aids. He hopes for a new Great Awakening in which the new upper class lets the rest in on the secrets of their success and happiness.
The likelihood is that a reawakening is more likely to be spawned by greater access to more practical kinds of education-coupled with revolutions in medicine, communication, technology and maybe even manufacturing-than in Skull and Bones adopting an open admissions policy.