The once-stable incomes of America’s biggest earners now fluctuate dramatically from year to year. And as go the rich, so goes much of the economy.
Jacqueline Siegel paces the floor of her unfinished 7,200-square-foot ballroom. The former beauty queen, with platinum-blond hair, blue eye shadow and a white minidress, clacks along the plywood construction boards in her high heels trailed by a small entourage of helpers and staff.
“This is the grand hall,” she says, opening her arms to a space the size of a concert hall and surrounded by balconies. “It will fit 500 people comfortably, probably more. The problem with our place now is that when we have parties with, like, 400 people, it gets too crowded.”
The Siegels’ dream home, called “Versailles,” after its French inspiration, is still a work in progress. Its steel-and-wood frame rises from the tropical suburbs of Orlando, Fla., like a skeleton from the Jurassic age of real estate. Ms. Siegel shows off the future bowling alley, indoor relaxing pools, five kitchens, 23 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms, two elevators, two movie theaters (one for kids and one for adults, each modeled after a French opera theater), 20-car garage and wine cellar built for 20,000 bottles.
At 90,000 square feet, the Siegels’ Versailles is believed to be the largest private home in America. (The Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore house in North Carolina is bigger at 135,000 square feet, but it’s now a hotel and tourist attraction). The Siegels’ home is so big that they bought 10 Segways to get around—one for each of their eight children.
After touring the house, Ms. Siegel walks out to the deck, with its Olympic-size pool, future rock grotto, three hot tubs and 80-foot waterfall overlooking Lake Butler. Her eyes well up with tears.
Versailles was supposed to be done by now. The Siegels were supposed to be living their dream life—throwing charity balls and getting spa treatments downstairs after a long flight on their Gulfstream. The home was the culmination of David Siegel’s Horatio Alger story, from TV repairman to chief executive and owner of America’s largest time-share company, Westgate Resorts, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue and $200 million in profits.
Yet today, Versailles sits half-finished and up for sale. The privately owned Westgate Resorts was battered by the 2008 credit crunch and real-estate crash. It had about $1 billion in debt—much of it co-signed by the Siegels.
The banks that had loans on Versailles gave the Siegels an ultimatum: Either pay off the loans or sell the house. So it’s now on the market for $75 million, or $100 million if the buyer wants it finished.
The Siegels’ Versailles may be the nation’s most extravagant monument to the debt-fueled, status-crazed real-estate binge of the past decade. Like many Americans, the Siegels borrowed too much, spent too much and bet that values could only go higher. Even in the age of excess, Versailles was excessive.
Their story might seem like the exception among the rich, who, we’re told, just keep getting richer. Yet episodes like the Fall of the House of Siegel are becoming increasingly common as the wealthy undergo a sweeping and little-noticed revolution. The American rich, who used to be the most stable slice of the personal economy, are now the most volatile, with escalating booms and busts.
During the past three recessions, the top 1% of earners (those making $380,000 or more in 2008) experienced the largest income shocks in percentage terms of any income group in the U.S., according to research from economists Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen at Northwestern University. When the economy grows, their incomes grow up to three times faster than the rest of the country’s. When the economy falls, their incomes fall two or three times as much.
The super-high earners have the biggest crashes. The number of Americans making $1 million or more fell 40% between 2007 and 2009, to 236,883, while their combined incomes fell by nearly 50%—far greater than the less than 2% drop in total incomes of those making $50,000 or less, according to Internal Revenue Service figures.
Of course, the trauma of giving up a Gulfstream or a yacht can’t compare with the millions of Americans who have lost their only job or home. The Siegels will make do in their current 26,000-square-foot mansion.
The incomes of the wealthy can also be “managed” through selling stock, exercising options and shifting around business losses. Yet their income volatility is roughly the same when options are excluded, and their accumulated wealth is also highly unstable.
During the 1990 and 2001 recessions, the richest 5% of Americans (measured by net worth) experienced the largest decline in their wealth, according to research from the Federal Reserve. As of 2009, the richest 20% of Americans showed the largest decline in mean wealth of any other group.
Yet the rise of the manic millionaire marks something new in the U.S. economy and will increasingly be felt by the rest of the country. With the wealthy now at the center of the political debate, from the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York to the tax battles in Washington, portrayals of millionaires and billionaires are being shaped more by partisan ideologies than economic realities. The story of more volatile wealth may not fit neatly with either party’s agenda, but it offers a clearer view of the rich—who they are, how they got there, and how they will drive our own economic futures.
Though often described as a permanent plutocracy, this elite actually moves through a revolving door of riches, with some of today’s nouveau riche becoming tomorrow’s fallen kings. Only 27% of America’s 400 top earners have made the list more than one year since 1994, one study shows.
It wasn’t always this way. For decades after World War II, the top-one-percenters were the most steady line on the income and wealth charts. They gained less during good times and lost less during contractions than the rest of America.
Suddenly, in 1982, the wealthiest broke away from the rest of the economy and formed their own virtual country. Their incomes began soaring higher during good times. The top 1% of earners more than doubled their share of national income, to 20% as of 2008. Looking at another measure, the richest 1% increased their share of wealth from just over 20% to more than 33%.
Those surges were often accompanied by mini-crashes, even though the direction over time was always up. A top 1% that had once been models of financial sobriety set off on a wild ride of economic binges.
This marked a new personality type in the history of wealth: the High-Beta Rich.
“High beta” is a term used in financial markets to describe a stock or asset that has exaggerated up and down swings with the market. Tech start-ups and casino stocks have high betas, for example. Yet studies show that today’s rich have higher betas than many of the riskiest gambling stocks. Between 1947 and 1982, the beta of the top 1% was a modest 0.72, meaning that their incomes moved relatively in line with the rest of America. Between 1982 and 2007, their beta soared more than three-fold.
What created high-beta wealth? Economists aren’t sure. The rise of the high-betas and the rise in inequality started at the same time, suggesting they have a common cause. Mr. Parker and Ms. Vissing-Jorgenssen cite new communication technologies that allow the best workers and products to be scaled over larger markets, thus making them more sensitive to economic changes. Others cite globalization and the rise of “winner-take-all” pay schemes.
Interviews with more than 100 people with net worths (or former net worths) of $10 million or more, and a wave of new studies on the rich, suggest a different cause: the “financialization” of wealth. Simply put, more wealth today is tied to the stock market than to broader economic growth. A larger share of today’s rich make their fortunes from stock-based pay, shares in publicly traded companies, selling a business or working in finance.
Because the stock market is up to 20 times more volatile than overall economic growth, the market-based fortunes of the wealthy are now more unsteady. Fast-moving global capital is also creating more asset bubbles, which have become their own self-destructing wealth machines.
Rising debt plays a role. While the rich are often portrayed as thrifty “millionaires next door,” the era of low interest rates and easy money has turned them into a leveraged elite. The household debt of the top 1% surged more than three-fold between 1989 and 2007, to $600 billion, and grew faster than their net worth.
Add to that the growing arms race in conspicuous consumption and you get big spenders who are only one crisis away from financial ruin. Edra Blixseth, the former co-owner of the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mont., went from being a paper billionaire to filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy—liquidation—in three years. She says that she and her husband, Tim, were “living on the financial edge” even as they had two yachts, three jets and a California estate with its own 19-hole golf course and staff of 110 people.
“I felt like we were always trying to project the image of success,” she says.
The fallout from the “high betas” is likely to grow. As the wealthy gain a greater share of wealth and income, they account for a growing share of spending, taxes and investments. The top 5% of earners now account for 37% of consumer outlays, according to Moody’s Analytics. The top 1% of earners pay 38% of federal income taxes. The richest 1% of Americans own more than half of the country’s individually held stocks, according to the Federal Reserve.
The spending of the rich is even wilder than their incomes. The spending volatility of the top 10% of earners is now more than 10 times the spending volatility of the bottom 80%, according to one study.
Since a high percentage of spending by the rich is discretionary—jewelry and vacations rather than toothpaste and milk—it rises and falls with their confidence and the stock market. Luxury is now the most volatile segment of the consumer economy. The average price of a Gulfstream V tumbled from $45 million to about $23 million during the latest recession, while sales volume fell by nearly half. Similar patterns show up with racehorses, yachts and multimillion-dollar vacation homes. The butler shortage of 2007 became the butler glut of 2010.
The Siegels show how the cycle of high-beta wealth plays out in the lives, values and economy of the rich. Before 2008, Mr. Siegel’s company, Westgate, was earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the family. The Siegels poured $50 million into Versailles, which seemed reasonable at the time. When friends asked David why he wanted to build the largest home in America, he had a simple answer: “Because I can.”
“I was cocky and I didn’t care what the house would cost because I couldn’t spend all the money I was making,” Mr. Siegel says.
When Westgate couldn’t roll over its debts, he had to bail out the company with hundreds of millions of dollars of his own. He fired half of his workforce of 12,000 people and sold off assets. Mr. Siegel says that today, Westgate is “highly profitable” and demand is strong, but revenues are still half their peak levels due to lack of financing.
The Siegels took their first hard look at their own lifestyle. They fired 14 of their 15 housekeepers and lost their private chef, named “chef Jeff.” They pulled their kids out of private school and put them in the local public school.
Recently, the family boarded a commercial flight for a vacation, making for some confusion. One of the kids looked around the crowded cabin and asked, “Mom, what are all these strangers doing on our plane?”
—Adapted from “The High-Beta Rich: How the Manic Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble, and Bust,” to be published Nov. 1 by Crown Business.