Do the Super-Rich matter?
It's the controversy that is becoming symbolic of a wider debate about the future direction of the UK. Should we be 'intensely relaxed' about the superrich, as Peter Mandelson claimed?
Or are they symptomatic of something fundamentally wrong with Britain? Do the Super-Rich Matter? forensically analyses the impact the wealthiest are having on our wellbeing. It reveals an economy increasingly skewed to serve the interests of a tiny minority and a society losing touch with a basic sense of fairness.
Uniquely, Do the Super-Rich Matter? proposes a bold programme to address these worrying trends.
The last two decades have seen the rise of a new super-rich class in the UK. It is a process that has reversed the previous long-term trend toward a more equal Britain and is taking us back to levels of income inequality last seen before the Second World War.
Today's super-rich lists are dominated by those making money in land, property and finance. Despite the presence of a significant minority of people from disadvantaged backgrounds among the rich, birth remains the most powerful indicator of who ends up at the top of the wealth tables.
The rise of today's super-rich is a product of the juxtaposition of economic globalisation, a dramatic shift in the wider political culture in the UK and the erosion of the social norms that used to keep greed and excess in check. The effect has been the rise of fortunes that equal or surpass those of the 19th century.
The evidence does not support the broad political consensus that the rise of the super-rich has been wholly good for Britain.
While the City has emerged as the leading global financial centre, the growing reliance on finance has crowded out other industries and made the economy excessively dependent on short-term, fast-buck-making deals that are rarely in the interest of sustainable business or improved long-term growth.
Today's economic convulsions have exposed the reality behind the City's claims to have increased world liquidity and reduced investment risk. They reveal how much City decision-making has been geared to the process of personal enrichment, with damaging consequences for the wider economy. In effect, the City operates as a giant informal cartel, charging excessive fees for activity that is as likely to transfer as create wealth. While the world's financial systems have been unravelling, most of those responsible have ensured that they will not be the ones to suffer the consequences.
Although personal fortunes would be justified if they were the product of wealth creation with wider benefits, the evidence is that the escalating fortunes enjoyed by company executives, investment bankers and hedge fund and private equity partners are not linked to record levels of company or economic performance. Far from expanding the cake, Britain's business leaders have mostly taken advantage of today's pro-rich culture to grab a larger share of it for themselves.
Although it may be statistically possible to reduce poverty when inequality is rising, in practise it is very hard to do so. The evidence is that rather than being a 'positive sum game' with no losers, much wealth accumulation is the product of carefully manipulated transfers that harm others, from ordinary taxpayers and shareholders to customers. The much trumpeted 'trickle-down' effect peters out quickly as you descend the income ladder, with gains spreading little further than to the already affluent.
The hands-off policies of recent times are becoming increasingly difficult to justify. The present system of self-regulation has been too lax, while the current system of corporate remuneration remains deeply flawed. There are clear signs that we have reached the limit of public tolerance of a society skewed so heavily in favour of the rich, irrespective of the impact on others. Even pro-market experts are expressing concerns about the decline in ethical standards in boardrooms.
Despite claims from Business Minister John Hutton that the Government is powerless to close the widening wealth gap, this report lays out a range of economically and politically feasible measures that could cap unjustifiable fortune building at the expense of others and secure a fairer distribution of rewards:
- Banks should run higher levels of capital requirements to improve countercyclical policy.
- Greater transparency is needed in the extent of risk inherent in financial products.
- Private equity companies should have the same disclosure requirements as public companies.
- International controls need to be strengthened.
- Bonus payments should be deferred until the performances of those receiving bonuses become clear.
- Institutional investors need to take a greater role on pay, while remuneration committees need to be strengthened.
- The Competition Commission should launch an inquiry into the fees charged by investment banks.
- The Government needs to reassert a commitment to the principle of progressive taxation.
- New rules should limit the tax relief available on leveraged loans.
- Inheritance tax should be replaced with a lifetime receipts tax.
- Capital gains should be treated as income.
- A much more concerted attack is needed on tax avoidance by, for example, introducing a minimum tax rate for those earning over £100,000 and taking a tougher stance on the non-domiciliary rule.
- The Government should finance either a regular independent social audit that analyses the impact of increasing wealth concentration on wider life chances or establish a permanent Wealth Commission parallel to the Low Pay Commission.
Issued: 7 September, 2008