Luxury Marketing Update: How the Richest People Across the Globe Compare by Location

With ultra-high-net-worth-individuals (UHNWIs) already being a very niche group, it can be easy for marketers to pigeonhole them. However, in reality, each UHNWI is just that – an individual. One way of digging down deeper and understanding this audience on a more granular level is to divide the world’s wealthiest by location, and so this article will focus on the differences between the richest people in America and richest people in Europe. Here, we’ll look at the wealthiest individuals across both places and where their money comes from, assessing their changing spending habits, where they live and where they’re moving to.

First, we must understand exactly what is meant by an UHNWI. According to wealth journalist Gaétan Pierret in his paper Zurich, the new darling of millionaires, high-net-worth-individuals (HNWIs) own assets between one and thirty million dollars, while UNHWIs own assets of at least $30 million dollars. A similar definition by finance website Investopedia states that a HNWI must have liquid assets above a certain figure, and, although there is no precise rule about what this number must be, HNWIs need to have a net wealth of 6/7+ figures. UHNWIs are then defined as people with investable assets of at least $30 million, usually excluding personal assets and property. Investopedia also adds a very-high-net-worth-individual (VHNWI) classification in the middle, referring to someone with a net worth of at least $5 million.

For the purpose of this article, we will refer to a HNWI as someone with assets over $1 million, and a UHNWI as someone with investable assets of at least $30 million.

Who are the richest people in America and Europe?

As of January 2021, America is home to the first, second, fourth and fifth richest people in the world, while Europe is home to the third richest person in the world, according to Business Insider.

  1. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, net worth $192.3 billion.

Amazon has reaped the benefits of this coronavirus pandemic, with more number of people shopping online, and this has seen Bezos’ fortune rocket from $74 billion in 2020 to $189.3 billion as of January 2021.

  1. Tesla and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, net worth $182.9 billion

Elon Musk’s success stems from him revolutionising transport, both in terms of eco-friendly cars and space rockets.

  1. LVMH Moët Hennessy Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault, net worth $148.4 billion

Arnault’s luxury fashion empire encompasses more than 70 brands including Louis Vuitton and Sephora.

  1. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, net worth $121.6 billion

Despite having eventually sold off most of his stakes in Microsoft, Gates entered the $100 billion club last year in April when share price surged post-earnings. His charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is also the world’s largest private charitable foundation.

  1. Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, net worth $99.8 billion

The youngest billionaire on this list, Mark Zuckerberg champions two of the most popular social media platforms – Facebook and Instagram.

As you may expect considering the above, the leading country for UHNW individuals is the US, while Europe is the world’s third most populous region of UHNWIs. The 2020 Knight Frank Wealth Report shows that the US has 240,575 UHNWIs, more than Europe and Asia combined, and accounting for almost half the global total. But is there a difference between the type of UHNWIs across America and Europe?

There are a lot of “self-made” ultra-wealthy individuals in the USA, with creating your own wealth being a core part of the American dream, whereas it is traditionally more common for Europeans UHNWIs to have inherited their wealth instead of creating their own. A Peterson Institute for International Economics found that in 2014, more than half of European billionaires inherited their wealth compared to just a third of billionaires in the US. European fortunes are also much more likely to date back over multiple generations, with over 20% of Europe’s inherited fortunes found to be four or more generations old, compared to less than 10% in America. Economics columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote in a 2018 piece that: “No moral intuition is more hard-wired into Americans’ concept of economic justice than equality of opportunity. The reason Americans tolerate higher levels of income inequality is because of our faith that we all have a fair chance at achieving the American Dream or becoming the next Bill Gates.”

There are exceptions of course in both regions. In 2019 Wealth X found that 67.7% of all UHNWIs were self-made, while 23.7% had a combination of inherited and self-created wealth, and just 8.5% had completely inherited their wealth. This was attributed to new opportunities in technology, as well as emerging economies of the past decade.

You will notice that all four of the richest people in America are in the technology industry. So, unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley, the undisputed technology hub of the USA, is particularly a hotspot for HNW and UHNWIs. According to Vox, there are 143 tech billionaires around the world, and half of them are based in Silicon Valley.

The growth in billionaire wealth in the United States is also very much driven by the finance sector, with more than 40% of the growth in the US billionaire population attributed to finance—and particularly hedge funds—compared to just 14% of the growth in Europe, according to data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Bernard Arnault’s wealth for example comes from a more traditional goods selling business, for which he got start up funds from his father’s extremely successful construction business.  Arnault took $15 million from that business to buy Christian Dior in 1985, and the rest is history. This follows a wider trend – typically, European billionaires are attached to considerably older businesses than their US counterparts. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the median age of a European billionaire’s business is 61, compared to 42 for their American peers—a difference of nearly 20 years.

Around the world, billionaires have grown at an even faster rate than the rest of the UHNW population, according to a paper titled The Changing Nature of Global Wealth Creation: Shifts and Trends in the Ultra High Net Worth (UHNW) Community. This is because, while the twin forces of globalisation and technology have given businesses access to international markets, a select group of companies have dominated the global market, making a select few people extremely rich.

How do UHNWIs from Europe & America spend their money?

Philanthropy

Philanthropy is highly important amongst the richest people in America and Europe alike. Wealth X reported that 2018, North America accounted for 49% of the world’s philanthropic giving, while Europe accounted for 31.5%. This may seem to point to a more giving culture amongst America’s ultra-rich, but we must remember that America is home to many more UHNWIs than Europe. In fact, Wealth X states that a strong tradition of government-provided welfare has typically held back US-style public giving, though changes to individual expectations and the ability of governments to play this traditional role are causing a gradual shift. In North America, 90.2% of wealthy donors are men and 9.8% are women, whereas European UHNW donors have slightly more equality – 87.8% are men and 12.2% are women.

Younger UHNWIs the worldover consider philanthropy to be a crucial element of their financial morality, prioritising charitable commitments over their lifetime rather than preserving their assets for future heirs, which is a departure from historical trends. According to a report from the Milken Institute, the UHNW next generation is also more likely to fund newer, less established organisations, as well as grassroots advocacy efforts, orienting towards more social and environmental causes. Where older generations of the ultra-rich have focused on donating charitable gifts, younger UHNWIs are more likely to include impact investments as a way of ensuring their money really will make a difference.

Interests & priorities

Wealth X reports that art collecting amongst UHNW continues to be popular, stemming from appreciating aesthetics, supporting creativity and securing long-term investments. In fact,  there has been a marked increase in collecting activity worldwide, thanks to a social-media-driven desire to publicly join the elite community of HNW and UHNW collectors. According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, total global sales increased 6% to $67.4 billion year-over-year in 2018. Of these global sales, the US made up 44% while the United Kingdom alone contributed 21%. Considering that the US is roughly 40% bigger than the UK, this shows a much greater interest from certain nationalities within the European UHNW in purchasing artwork, although it is undeniably also popular with the richest people in America.

In America, yacht brokers reported a sharp increase in HNW and UHWIs buying yachts in the spring and summer of 2020, allowing them to enjoy a safe and private holiday at a time when there were no other vacation options available. Fortune reports that America’s boating business is showing the strongest growth in over a decade, and although this has largely been driven by smaller vessels bought by HNWIs, it does include larger yachts purchased by American UHNWIs. This trend has not been seen to nearly such a large extent in Europe, perhaps due to travel restrictions between countries limiting UHNW opportunity for adventure.

Above all, both the European and American ultra-rich are prioritising health above all else in light of the pandemic. In fact, Robb Report states that many UHNWIs are spending millions on acquiring more nationalities in countries around the world, to allow their entire families to relocate to safer countries with good medical services. Applications for new nationalities have increased 42% since last year, according to citizenship broker Henley & Partners. Buying these nationalities can cost as little as $100,000 per family member in the Caribbean, rising through €1 million to €2 million ($1.1 million to $2.2 million) in Malta and Cyprus, up to €7 million ($7.6 million) in Austria. As we will see later on, property is something else that both sets of UHNWIs are willing to spend vast amounts of money on.

Where do American & European UHNWIs live?

Most desirable places for the richest people in Europe & America to live

According to Zurich, the new darling of millionaires, as of 2021 Zurich is at the top of the list of cities most sought after by the world’s ultra-wealthy. Luxury realtor Barnes recently published its yearly list of the most attractive cities for HNWI and UHNWI, and there were some big surprises, with places such as New York, London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Paris falling from the top five for the first time in decades.

Instead, Europe’s Zurich and Copenhagen were in the top two most desirable places to live for the ultra-rich. These are cities where it is good to live; those recognised for their quality of life and where there is great security. Three criteria were taken into account: the practical aspect (quality of the infrastructures and services offered), the emotional bond (culture, architecture, etc.) and the financial aspect (potential for added value or yield).

Zurich was only in thirtieth place in 2020, showing a post-pandemic trend for UHNWIs now prioritising comfort and safety above all else. America’s Miami came in fourth place, also offering a high quality of life, a beautiful environment and safety, and showing that the same values were treasured by the ultra-rich in the US when seeking out a new place of residence.

As we touched on earlier, during the pandemic, the richest people in both Europe and America either relocated to or purchased rural estates, with many relocating to less-populated areas and estates which had enough land and activities to give families no need to leave the grounds.

In the UK, property agents have reported a surge in sales of vast country estates and former castle properties, which until the pandemic had been growing hard to shift, with the richest of the rich instead wanting to live in luxurious skyscraper penthouses, or on private islands. Now, these properties are growing harder to come by – the Guardian reports that in November 2020, luxury realtor Savills had sold – or was on the verge of selling – 21 estates valued at £15m-plus since the first nationwide lockdown in March. We can compare this with 2019, when just one such property sold over the whole year.

Across the pond, it is the same story in the US, where prices for the top 5% of homes outpaced the rest of the sector in May 2020 according to a report from Realtor.com. The report also noted that viewings were up 28% in Palm Springs and 56% in the Hamptons in May compared to January 2020.

In order to meet the needs of a newly rural and rich set, a range of services more often found in downtown New York and London are also moving to the countryside, states Forbes. Blue-chip art dealers, including Pace, Skarstedt Gallery, and the auction house Sotheby’s, have now set up outposts in the Hamptons, aware of their newly located audience.

Some American UHNWIs are taking this idea even further. In fact, as far back as 2017, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman said that more than half of his Silicon Valley friends had acquired some sort of apocalyptic hideout in the United States or elsewhere in the world. For these UHNWIs the arrival of the pandemic has simply put these luxury bunkers into use, with the richest people in America boarding their private jets (with a staff of private doctors in tow and staff) and heading to their hideouts to quarantine until the situation improves.

Some had spared no expense, with one Survival Condo in Kansas coming with a weapons room, fake windows, a swimming pool, pet park and climbing wall, as well as a $3m price tag. The Guardian also reports tell of the Silicon Valley elite burying bunkers on ranches in New Zealand, wealthy Russian oligarchs buying whole Pacific islands to escape to, and bunkers being subcontracted by ultra-rich individuals such as Bill Gates and Kim Kardashian. This bunker trend seems to be less followed by the European elite, who are happy enough escaping to a large country estate or villa.

What makes American & European UHNWIs different?

As we have seen, although there are notable differences in the density of UHNWIs in Europe and the USA and how these individuals acquired their wealth, the richest people in America and Europe follow somewhat similar patterns when it comes to how they spend their money and where they want to live. However, different cultural values mean that ultra-wealthy Americans and the richest people in Europe do make slightly different and notable purchasing decisions, which luxury marketers must be aware of if they wish to truly understand their target audience. When making expensive purchases, individuals wish to feel fully seen and understood by the brand, meaning UHNWIs won’t be convinced by anything but a highly personalised campaign. For more information, reach out to my luxury digital marketing agency Relevance.

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