There is something surprising about a private banker warning his colleagues about the rich. It would be like a director of Volkswagen AG casting doubt on motorists, or the boss of McDonald’s Corp. distancing himself from people who eat fast food. Rather like valets, the main aim of the private banker is to court the wealthy.
At a conference in Zurich last week, the head of Barclays Wealth Management’s private-banking unit, Gerard Aquilina, appeared to issue a red alert about the richest of clients.
“Beware of the complexities of dealing with ultra high net worths,” Aquilina told his audience. “Demanding and often unreasonable” requests from them may create “impossible demands on the organization.”
Such as? Help with getting children into the right school, securing credit to buy property, or obtaining last-minute concert tickets, for example. Even worse, the richest of the rich turn out to be pretty stingy as well. They don’t even want to pay the full fee for all the services they demand.
It was strong stuff. But it was also an insight into the way the rich have changed over the past decade. They are, it turns out, a nasty bunch of people who are only getting nastier. And the banking industry only has itself to blame.
To some degree, Aquilina’s warning can be seen as the kind of observation you find in every industry. Executives in any business tend to feel the real trouble always comes from the customer, who is often stupid, unreasonable and annoying, and sometimes all of the above.
No doubt, the software engineers at Microsoft Corp. fume about all those blockheads who don’t know how to partition their hard drive, or re-configure the registry file. There must be countless airline executives who occasionally dream about how smoothly their planes would circle the globe if only they didn’t have to fill them up with stupid tourists, their snotty children, and their overstuffed bags.
It’s always the case that people are going to be irritated by those they have to serve. There’s no reason that even super-smooth private bankers should be exempt from that. But Aquilina makes an interesting point.
There is an increasing amount of evidence that the rich are a vicious tribe of people. One study last year from the University of California, Berkeley, found that the rich are ruder than others. Another piece of research, conducted at the same institution, concluded they were less likely to give to charity than poorer people were. A third study, carried out at the Humboldt University in Berlin, concluded they were “nastier,” in the sense of being keener to punish others.
Top of Tree
Nothing is shocking about that. You don’t get to be rich without being difficult and demanding. You need some sharp elbows to get to the top of the tree, and there is no point in being squeamish about treading on a few toes along the way. And the rich have a lot more to protect than other people: They have to be fierce to hang on to all that wealth.
They have probably been vicious ever since one caveman used a bigger club to take control of the grandest cave on the hill.
In the past, most fortunes were built in association with ordinary people. Factory owners were aware of the shop-floor workers on whom their wealth depended, and that shaped the view of themselves. Carmaker Henry Ford doubled his workers’ average pay to $5 a day in 1913 and shortened their working hours. The Cadbury family of chocolate makers in the U.K. built a small town for many of the company’s workers in Bournville, near Birmingham, in the 19th century. That made them more human.
The growth of the financial-services industry and the bonus culture has changed that. The investment bankers and hedge-fund managers who make up most of the new rich elite don’t have much contact with ordinary people. They assume their wealth is entirely the result of their own brilliance. And they cut themselves off from normal life.
It is an industry that mints billionaires and also breeds arrogance, selfishness and snobbishness.
Aquilina has put a spotlight on an industry that only has itself to blame. Maybe that’s why he’s warning others.
(Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist and the author of “Bust,” a forthcoming book on the Greek debt crisis. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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