The first is that family offices could endanger the stability of the financial system. Combining very rich people, opacity and markets can be explosive. LTCM, a $100bn hedge fund backed by the super-rich, blew up in 1998, almost bringing down Wall Street. Scores of wealthy people fell for a Ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff that collapsed in 2008. Still, as things stand family offices do not look like the next disaster waiting to happen. They have debt equivalent to 17% of their assets, making them among the least leveraged participants in global markets. On balance, they may even be a stabilising influence. Their funds are usually deployed for decades, making them far less vulnerable to panics than banks and many hedge funds.
The second worry is that family offices could magnify the power of the wealthy over the economy. This is possible: were Bill Gates to invest exclusively in Turkey, he would own 65% of its stockmarket. But the aim is usually to diversify risk, not concentrate power, by taking capital from the original family business and putting it into a widely spread portfolio. The family-office industry is less concentrated than mainstream asset management, which a few firms such as BlackRock dominate. Compared with most fund managers, family offices have welcome habits, including a longer-term horizon and an appetite for startups.
It is the third danger that has most bite: that family offices might have privileged access to information, deals and tax schemes, allowing them to outperform ordinary investors. So far there is little evidence for this. The average family office returned 16% in 2017 and 7% in 2016, according to Campden Wealth, a research firm, slightly lagging behind world stockmarkets. Nonetheless, tycoons are well connected. Family offices are becoming more complex—a third have at least two branches—making tax wheezes easier. Hungry brokers and banks are rolling out the red carpet and pitching deals with unlisted firms that are not available to ordinary investors. If all this did lead to an entrenched, unfair advantage, the effect, when compounded over decades, would make wealth inequality disastrously worse.
The answer is vigilance and light. Most regulators, treasuries and tax authorities are beginners when it comes to dealing with family offices, but they need to ensure that rules on insider trading, the equal servicing of clients by dealers and parity of tax treatment are observed. And they should prod family offices with assets of over, say, $10bn to publish accounts detailing their workings. In a world that is suspicious of privilege, big family offices have an interest in boosting transparency. In return, they should be free to operate unmolested. They may even have something to teach hordes of flailing asset managers who serve ordinary investors, many of whom may look at their monthly fees and wish that they, too, could ditch the middlemen.