2019 sees the the Sunday Times Rich List (STRL) go political. With the bright red front cover adorned by an image of British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, Editor Robert Watts’ introduction warns of a potential exodus of high net-worth individuals (HNWIs), fearful of a so-called “Corbygeddon”, from the UK’s shores. Right on cue, Corbyn himself chimed in to call the List “a stark reminder of the grotesque inequality that scars our society”. So far, so controversial.
Away from politics, the 2019 list again sees a record high for top wealth in the UK. Despite significant losses for evergreen Listers like Lakshmi Mittal, Mike Ashley, Luke Johnson and the Schroder family, this year a whopping 151 billionaires feature in the top 1,000, with total estimated value of £524.8bn, (up from £480.5bn in 2018). Total list value is at an all-time high of £771bn, 68% derived from billionaire wealth, with entry to the list now requiring £120m, up from around £40m in 1989. At the top, a £241m drop in profits at his firm Ineos explained as having caused a £3bn drop in Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s overall wealth, pushing him from top spot to third. Private Eye, who had questioned his elevation to first place in 2018, will doubtless take note.
And the sharp-eyed reader will have spotted other methodological quirks. The ‘rules of engagement’ on p144 hint at the potential variability underlying the list’s published estimates. Landholdings – a critical part of so much wealth – are valued on a hierarchy atop which sits “London land with planning permission”. But this masks a tremendous variation even within the value of this region, especially when so-called ‘hope value’ – the increased price of land with secured planning permission – is factored in. Looking at assets, the listed sources of “identifiable wealth” seem to leave major categories unmentioned. Assets listed as having been considered are “land, property, racehorses, art or significant shares in publicly listed companies” – no mention of significant classes of collectibles like wine, jewellery, classic cars, coins, any one of which are considerable stores of value whose prices have risen steeply in recent years. The list also omits sailing, odd when a single superyacht can cost eight figures. When the list was first published in 1989 such assets may have been intangible, but the standard of open source investigation has risen rapidly in recent years, as shown by the pioneering work of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Bellingcat, among others, work which shows that identifying the value of assets has never been more possible. And what of the “computerised searches and analysis” used to track down owners of private companies? Data suppliers are mentioned, but no methods – a tantalising loose end for those interested in the STRL teams methods.
Even given that a generous dollop of art by necessity leavens the science of the lists’ affluence estimates, the sheer scale of difference between different publications estimates are notable. One eye-catching example is that of the Reuben brothers, whose wealth the Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index (BBI) reckons at $6.2bn (£4.8bn), while the STRL has them an order of magnitude away, at £18.7bn. I raise this not to nitpick at the undoubtedly slippery task facing the STRL research team, but to highlight the thorny job facing many fundraising researchers (and others) who seek to use these lists to understand the approximate order of magnitude to use in their recommendations. Many of our teams rely on our estimates to determine team activity, estimations which are made more difficult to make by such huge differences between the estimates of much-used resources like these.
Experienced List-watchers will find the absences almost as interesting as the presences. And no, I am not referring to the longstanding convention of absenting Rupert Murdoch from the list (though I can’t resist noting that his daughter Elisabeth’s £156m fortune derives from the sale of her former television production company to her father’s firm, News Corp), but to the elusiveness of the ‘missing wealthy’. Put to one side the growing academic literature on top wealth which is has driven up the standard of analysis in this area in recent years. But, when an experienced practitioner like Rupert Hoogewerf (creator and lead researcher of the Hurun Report) estimates that for every billionaire his team in China identifies a further two are missed, can we reasonably believe the STRL omits fewer HNWIs than this? Probably not. Maybe we will be in a better position to judge once the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently-announced five-year study of inequality in the UK, headed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton, is completed. Let’s see.
As it enters its 32nd year, the STRL is part of the landscape of our industry, and others. Current Editor Robert Watts and STRL founder Philip Beresford deserve credit for creating and sustaining such a bankable (excuse the pun) publishing phenomenon. Yet, as the team are no doubt aware, as the years pass so must methods evolve. In the age of Big Data, ever-sharper academic and journalistic specialism, and growing interest from companies and the public, the Rich List will need to evolve. We await to see the innovations Watts and his team will use to keep ahead of the field next time.
Roll on 2020.