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.