Enough is enough
A top U.S. money manager worries about the enrichment of the very few.
NEW YORK - Bill Gross didn't leave much room for misunderstanding.
Gross, one of the biggest investment managers in the world, shocked Wall Street last week by supplying a highly uncharacteristic forecast for an investment manager. It was gloomy, sharp and clear. No dithering or one-hand/other-hand; no "in the long run", either.
The happy days of easy money on the financial markets are over, Gross thundered. The meltdown in the U.S. subprime mortgage market, which involves homebuyers defaulting on high-risk loans, is not isolated. It will spread to other asset types, and investors will suffer.
Gross, whose words reverberated up and down the Street, upset many of his colleagues.
"Nonsense. There are problems that pinpoint the market of the highest-risk mortgages. In a month the whole thing will blow over," the manager of a Wall Street company told me. "The market is strong, foreign investors are continuing to buy U.S. shares and property. Russians, Chinese, British, Indians, and on the margins, Israelis, too, are snapping up shares on Wall Street and apartments in Manhattan at crazy prices because they believe in the American economy."
Gross runs PIMCO, one of the biggest fixed-income management companies in the world. It has $687 billion under management, and Gross is considered to be one of the most influential people on Wall Street. Yet the day after the "bonds king" published his glum forecasts, the markets were bounding forward, propelled by chirpy words from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
But more interesting, perhaps, than his forecast about asset prices is the first part of Gross' letter to investors, which won a fraction of the attention paid to his words about bonds and stocks.
"Enough is enough", he titled his paper. He meant not only easy money that allowed private equity and hedge funds to rule the Street through gigantic borrowing, but a far simpler issue: the astonishing enrichment of the very few.
Many of Israel's rich, and their lawyers, bitterly attack anybody suggesting that the vast accrual of wealth by the few is a danger to society, to economics and even to democracy. That's market economics, they fume; that's the only way to create economic growth. The billionaires and the multimillionaires are the ones who create our jobs, they argue.
William H. Gross is not only one of the most prominent economists and professionals in the investment community; he is a billionaire himself. He made 322nd place in the list of the richest Americans, with wealth of about $1.2 billion, all of which he accrued through initiative, talent and success in his investments.
"Wealth has always gravitated towards those that take risk with other people's money, but especially so when taxes are low," he writes. "The rich are different - but they are not necessarily society's paragons. It is in fact society's wind and its current willingness to nurture the rich that fills their sails."
He savages his colleagues for their war against the proposal to increase taxes on their income. They argue it would impair their incentive, yet they themselves claim to love "the problems they work on and the challenges inherent to their business".
With his piece, Gross joins an even bigger investor and legend, Warren Buffett. Last month the Oracle of Omaha called for taxes to be raised on the super-rich and underscored the absurdity: He pays only 15 percent federal tax on his income, he revealed, while his employees pay double that rate.
If you thought the mind-boggling enrichment of the few was a uniquely Israeli problem, look at the graph. Only twice in the last 100 years has so much wealth been concentrated in the hands of so few. And in the last two cases, it ended in a crushing economic crisis.
Gross and Buffett are not denying market economics or globalization. On the contrary, they are ardent believers and see no other way to create wealth, growth and to spur innovation. Buffett argues that first society must focus on creating abundance - and then it must consider how to redistribute it more equitably.
"When the fruits of society's labor become maldistributed, when the rich get richer and the middle and lower classes struggle to keep their heads above water as is clearly the case today, then the system ultimately breaks down; boats do not rise equally with the tide; the center cannot hold," writes Gross.
America's billionaires point out that they give money back to society through philanthropy. Most of Israel's billionaires have no such excuse.
Gross, however, is left clammy by the billionaire's generosity. The lion's share of their money goes into trust funds for their offspring down the generations, vacation homes, private jets, glittering parties and "ego-rich donations to local art museums and concert halls."
"When millions of people are dying from AIDS and malaria in Africa, it is hard to justify the umpteenth society gala held for the benefit of a performing arts center or an art museum," he writes. "A thirty million dollar gift for a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation."