State of the Union January/February 2011

The Rise of the New Global Elite

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he declared the rich different from you and me. But today’s super-rich are also different from yesterday’s: more hardworking and meritocratic, but less connected to the nations that granted them opportunity—and the countrymen they are leaving ever further behind.
A Nation Apart

Pinchuk’s growing international Rolodex illustrates another defining characteristic of today’s plutocrats: they are forming a global community, and their ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to hoi polloi back home. As Glenn Hutchins, co-founder of the private-equity firm Silver Lake, puts it, “A person in Africa who runs a big African bank and went to Harvard might have more in common with me than he does with his neighbors, and I could well share more overlapping concerns and experiences with him than with my neighbors.” The circles we move in, Hutchins explains, are defined by “interests” and “activities” rather than “geography”: “Beijing has a lot in common with New York, London, or Mumbai. You see the same people, you eat in the same restaurants, you stay in the same hotels. But most important, we are engaged as global citizens in crosscutting commercial, political, and social matters of common concern. We are much less place-based than we used to be.”

In a similar vein, the wife of one of America’s most successful hedge-fund managers offered me the small but telling observation that her husband is better able to navigate the streets of Davos than those of his native Manhattan. When he’s at home, she explained, he is ferried around town by a car and driver; the snowy Swiss hamlet, which is too small and awkward for limos, is the only place where he actually walks. An American media executive living in London put it more succinctly still: “We are the people who know airline flight attendants better than we know our own wives.”

America’s business elite is something of a latecomer to this transnational community. In a study of British and American CEOs, for example, Elisabeth Marx, of the headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles, found that almost a third of the former were foreign nationals, compared with just 10 percent of the latter. Similarly, more than two-thirds of the Brits had worked abroad for at least a year, whereas just a third of the Americans had done so.

But despite the slow start, American business is catching up: the younger generation of chief executives has significantly more international experience than the older generation, and the number of foreign and foreign-born CEOs, while still relatively small, is rising. The shift is particularly evident on Wall Street: in 2006, each of America’s eight biggest banks was run by a native-born CEO; today, five of those banks remain, and two of the survivors—Citigroup and Morgan Stanley—are led by men who were born abroad.

Mohamed ElErian, the CEO of Pimco, the world’s largest bond manager, is typical of the internationalists gradually rising to the top echelons of U.S. business. The son of an Egyptian father and a French mother, ElErian had a peripatetic childhood, shuttling between Egypt, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. He was educated at Cambridge and Oxford and now leads a U.S.-based company that is owned by the German financial conglomerate Allianz SE.

Though ElErian lives in Laguna Beach, California, near where Pimco is headquartered, he says that he can’t name a single country as his own. “I have had the privilege of living in many countries,” ElErian told me on a recent visit to New York. “One consequence is that I am a sort of global nomad, open to many perspectives.” As he talked, we walked through Midtown, which ElErian remembered fondly from his childhood, when he’d take the crosstown bus each day to the United Nations International School. That evening, ElErian was catching a flight to London. Later in the week, he was due in St. Petersburg.

Indeed, there is a growing sense that American businesses that don’t internationalize aggressively risk being left behind. For all its global reach, Pimco is still based in the United States. But the flows of goods and capital upon which the super-elite surf are bypassing America more often than they used to. Take, for example, Stephen Jennings, the 50-year-old New Zealander who co-founded the investment bank Renaissance Capital. Renaissance’s roots are in Moscow, where Jennings maintains his primary residence, and his business strategy involves positioning the firm to capture the investment flows between the emerging markets, particularly Russia, Africa, and Asia. For his purposes, New York is increasingly irrelevant. In a 2009 speech in Wellington, New Zealand, he offered his vision of this post-unipolar business reality: “The largest metals group in the world is Indian. The largest aluminum group in the world is Russian … The fastest-growing and largest banks in China, Russia, and Nigeria are all domestic.”

As it happens, a fellow tenant in Jennings’s high-tech, high-rise Moscow office building recently put together a deal that exemplifies just this kind of intra-emerging-market trade. Last year, Digital Sky Technologies, Russia’s largest technology investment firm, entered into a partnership with the South African media corporation Naspers and the Chinese technology company Tencent. All three are fast-growing firms with global vision—last fall, a DST spin-off called Mail.ru went public and immediately became Europe’s most highly valued Internet company—yet none is primarily focused on the United States. A similar harbinger of the intra-emerging-market economy was the acquisition by Bharti Enterprises, the Indian telecom giant, of the African properties of the Kuwait-based telecom firm Zain. A California technology executive explained to me that a company like Bharti has a competitive advantage in what he believes will be the exploding African market: “They know how to provide mobile phones so much more cheaply than we do. In a place like Africa, how can Western firms compete?”

The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”

At last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Splinter, CEO of the Silicon Valley green-tech firm Applied Materials, said that if he were starting from scratch, only 20 percent of his workforce would be domestic. “This year, almost 90 percent of our sales will be outside the U.S.,” he explained. “The pull to be close to the customers—most of them in Asia—is enormous.” Speaking at the same conference, Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business … American businesses will adapt.”

Jump to comments
Presented by

Chrystia Freeland is the managing director and editor of consumer news at Thomson Reuters.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In