How the super-rich invest
The family offices through which the world’s richest invest are a new force in global finance—and a target for populists
Think of the upper echelons of the money-management business, and the image that springs to mind is of fusty private banks in Geneva or London’s Mayfair, with marble lobbies and fake country-house meeting-rooms designed to make their super-rich clients feel at home. But that picture is out of date. A more accurate one would feature hundreds of glassy private offices in California and Singapore that invest in Canadian bonds, European property and Chinese startups—and whose gilded patrons are sleepwalking into a political storm.
Global finance is being transformed as billionaires get richer and cut out the middlemen by creating their own “family offices”, personal investment firms that roam global markets looking for opportunities. Largely unnoticed, family offices have become a force in investing, with up to $4trn of assets—more than hedge funds and equivalent to 6% of the value of the world’s stockmarkets. As they grow even bigger in an era of populism, family offices are destined to face uncomfortable questions about how they concentrate power and feed inequality.
The concept is hardly new; John D. Rockefeller set up his family office in 1882. But the number has exploded this century. Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 are based in America and Europe and in Asian hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Though their main task is to manage financial assets, the biggest offices, some with hundreds of staff, undertake all sorts of other chores, from tax and legal work to acting as high-powered butlers who book jets and pamper pets.