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How Rich Are the Rich?

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He blogs at the Big Picture and is the author of “Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”
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The new "World Wealth Report" for 2015 was released last week from Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management. The focus is on the population of high-net-worth individuals, or HNWIs as the report calls them. The report, based on a survey of more than 5,100 wealthy people in 23 major markets, is packed with fascinating data and graphics. 

You are probably familiar with some of the key themes and findings: 

• Tremendous amounts of wealth have been accumulated during the past five years.

• Much of this wealth is concentrated in the top 1 percent; and a large share of that wealth is concentrated in the top 1 percent of the 1 percent.

• The very wealthy have a disproportionate impact on policy, investing and the economy.

No big surprises there. However, some of the specific data points were intriguing: 

• The global HNWI population is 14.65 million, with total wealth of $56.4 trillion.

• The U.S. HNWI population is 4.68 million, with total wealth of $16.23 trillion.

• The U.S. as a region is ranked first for HNWI wealth and second for HNWI population, behind the Asia-Pacific region. 

Here are a few other points worth considering: 

Asia rising: Asia-Pacific overtook North America to become the region with the largest HNWI population at 4.69 million. While the two regions have swapped leadership roles before, the report notes that the growth of the Asia-Pacific region is more of a structural shift than in the past. That implies it is more likely to retain its leadership over the U.S. in terms of the number of wealthy individuals. Asia-Pacific is also likely to surpass North America in total wealth by the end of this year. 

HNWI wealth expanded in Asia-Pacific somewhat more slowly (6.7 percent) than in North America (7.2 percent) in 2014. These were the second-slowest rates of growth during the past five years. These two regions were the only ones that outpaced their five-year (2009 to 2014) annualized growth rates of wealth held by the richest people. 

Interestingly, India was the fastest-growing market for wealthy individuals in 2014, climbing 26 percent, and jumping five places to rank 11th globally. 

Ultra-HNWIs: The 1 percent of the 1 percent now account for 35 percent of the wealth held by the richest people. 

Wealth grew even more concentrated last year. Just two nations, the U.S. and China, helped drive more than half the global population growth of the wealthiest people; the next 10 markets expanded by less than the global average. 

Perhaps the most significant data point regarding global wealth is the forecast: Wealth held by the richest people will rise 7.7 percent a year to $70 trillion by 2017. 

Investments: Perhaps the most significant news is that the wealthy now have more capital invested in stocks than any other asset class. The report notes that "equity allocations moved slightly ahead of cash as the dominant asset" in the portfolios of the rich. Wealthy Japanese and Latin Americans increased their equity holdings the most. Note that this is based on surveys, not actual portfolio data. 

It is intriguing to consider that despite the strong rally in equities -- especially in the U.S. since 2009 and in China since 2014 -- cash was still the top holding a year earlier. It is unclear if the increase in equity holdings came about through an increased allocation to stocks or through appreciation. I suspect it may be the latter. 

The disproportionate amount of cash is intriguing as well. The top two reasons respondents gave for holding so much cash were 1) as a hedge in case of market volatility and 2) lifestyle needs. This suggests the scars from the financial crisis linger, but that the willingness of the rich to spend on luxury goods won't end. 

Finally, the disproportionate impact the 1 percent has on just about everything is something to keep in mind. If you want to better understand much of what is going on -- from policy to investing to the economy -- what the wealthiest investors do tells us a lot about where the world is headed. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Barry L Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net