The great billionaire wealth transfer means people born very, very rich are going to stay very, very rich.
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In late 2023, the richest woman in the world became a centibillionaire. But she didn’t get there by building an online shopping empire or by selling sleek EVs. She did it the good old-fashioned way: by inheriting it.
The scion of the French beauty brand L’Oréal, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers saw the value of her stake in the company shoot up during the rush of cosmetics and luxury fashion spending that’s taken place in the last few years. She’s far from alone in receiving billions from a parent. A recent report from the investment bank UBS highlighted a milestone: In 2023, for the first time in the nine years it’s been publishing this data, inherited billionaire wealth outstripped new billionaire wealth.
Billionaires have been minted at a dizzying pace in the last few decades — in 1987 Forbes counted 140, while in 2023 the tally was 2,640 — and we’ve now returned to the point in the cycle where enormous piles of wealth are passed on to the next generation. “This is how wealth dynasties are formed,” says Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the left-leaning think tank Institute for Policy Studies. The only thing that’s new in 2024 is that the piles of money are bigger than ever.
Not only are there more billionaires today, their average wealth keeps ticking up too, thanks to historic stock market returns. On top of that, heirs are receiving wealth transfers earlier in life, rather than waiting for the death or near death of a family member. All this underscores the truth that having money remains the best way to get more money. Perhaps there’s nowhere that’s truer than in the US, home to the most billionaires, despite the pervasive myth of hardscrabble, self-made entrepreneurs climbing to the top of the socioeconomic ladder. If you’re born poor, you’re likely to stay poor; if you’re born super rich, you’ll probably get even richer.
What do billionaires do with their riches anyway?
Many heirs are involved with the family business in some way, often weaving in and out of it. Bettencourt Meyers, the 70-year-old L’Oréal heir, sits on the company’s board but mostly chooses to live a quiet life as a writer who enjoys playing the piano. America’s richest heirs, the Waltons of Walmart fortune, collectively command almost $250 billion. Rob, the eldest son of the founder, was a longtime chair of Walmart’s board of directors. In 2022, he spearheaded a family effort to buy the Denver Broncos. Jim, the youngest son, is the former CEO and current board chair of the family-owned bank. Alice, the only daughter, collects art (she even founded her own museum) and is soon opening a health institute and medical school. Their family foundation has mostly prioritized expanding charter schools.
Arthur H. Geffen
Attorney & Counselor at Law
17330 Preston Rd., Suite 200D-260
Dallas. TX 75252