He is the foremost voice when it comes to wealth and opulence in America. Robert Frank was with the Wall Street Journal for over 18 years, covering the ups and downs of Wall Street and Fortune 500 corporations. For 8 years, he was the publications wealth reporter and blogged on the WSJ Wealth report, which Time Magazine named as America’s most influential financial blog. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller ‘Richistan,’ which offers an interesting and funny insight into the so-called ‘New Rich.’ In an exclusive interview with Luxurylaunches, he speaks about wealth, space crafts, and many more.
[Catch it all after the jump]
What defines a super-rich American?
We don’t define a number in the series, but generally, we look at people worth $100 million or more.
What about the super-rich draws you the most?
This is a group whose size and fortune have grown dramatically in the past two decades – along with the economy that serves them. We were interested in taking our cameras into a rarified world that’s rarely seen – into their mansions, private jets, yachts, and super-cars to see how they live and how they spend.
How did you get involved in peeping ‘Inside Wealth’?
I’ve been covering wealth for 10 years and have written two books about the rich. Taking these stories to TV was the logical extension since the subjects and surroundings are so visual. The goal here isn’t to judge people – not to celebrate the rich or condemn them – but to bring viewers inside this very foreign world.
An unknown or little-known fact about the 0.1%?
They rarely use their many homes. One owner of a $31 million mansion in Aspen had been there once in two years. One owner of a $100 million “complex” in California is there maybe once or twice a year. Today’s biggest mega-mansions are often empty.
What is that one thing that you would immediately buy if you become a billionaire?
A jet. It’s the closest thing to buying time and freedom – which to me are the real benefits to wealth.
The Wall Street protests showcased the people’s anger towards the super-rich or the so-called 0.1%. Do you think we or any capitalist society will ever reach a point where the gap between the rich and the poor will actually start decreasing?
Inequality is a fundamental problem for the economy and politics. The wealthy are not the cause of inequality; they are the beneficiaries of a new global economy and fast-moving capital that rewards some far more than others. The main drivers of inequality – globalization, technology, finance – are not going to be reversed. So the job of the government is either to help their populations adapt to an unequal distribution of wealth or to mitigate the growing wealth gap through policy. Neither is likely to be popular. One common misunderstanding is that inequality has grown dramatically over the past few years. The big growth in inequality in America – with both incomes and wealth—was actually during the late 1980s. It’s gone up since then, but only modestly.
Yachts and private jets are considered the ultimate status symbols; with the ongoing developments in space exploration, will we see luxurious private spaceships in the coming decades?
No question, space is the final frontier of conspicuous consumption. And deep-sea exploration.
According to you, which is the best city in the US for the super-wealthy?
I’d say, New York, of course. The wealthy like what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “consoling proximity” of other millionaires — and New York has the most, along with the other essentials for the rich: culture, food, global diversity, financial/investing intelligence. For the world, London. It’s become the ultimate pleasure dome for the rich worldwide – Russian oligarchs, Chinese princelings, Arab Sheikhs, American hedge-funders, and Indian tech tycoons.
Why is it that the US has the most billionaires in the world? Will, it ever be dethroned, and if yes, then by whom?
I don’t think so. America may be lagging other nations in manufacturing, but we still lead in the production of billionaires (and millionaires). The U.S. is expected to have 17 million millionaires (total assets minus liabilities totaling $1 million) by 2017, while Asia will have about half that.
In many countries, wealth comes from government – either connections or corruption. Here, the big wealth still comes largely from entrepreneurs creating and selling companies. Having a market-based economy with a strict rule of law and transparency will always create the most wealth.
As a wealth reporter, do you think you are wearing an opulent visor that filters out the reality?
In my coverage, I always try to reflect the average viewer: What would they ask? What would they want to know? How would they view this person or thing?
Do you get intimidated by covering America’s richest, most opulent, and over-extravagant news?
Not at all. I’m not overly impressed by wealth, nor am I dismissive. After being a foreign correspondent for years, I’m used to being the outsider asking tough questions representing the average reader or audience.
How do you keep yourself grounded after consistently speaking and reporting about the millions, billions, and trillions?
My family — especially my wife and daughters. When I get home at the end of the day, their hugs and smiles make me feel like the richest guy on earth.
Has your work influenced your personal lifestyle?
I’ve always been fairly low-key. I’m the son of two artists, so we spend on art, but not much else. I didn’t even own a car until a year ago.
What inspired you to kick off the Secret Lives of the Super Rich series?
The timing was right – for CNBC and me.
Tell us more about your new show on CNBC, “Secret Lives of the Super Rich.” What has been the most noteworthy experience from the whole series?
My favorite experience was going to film Feadship – the builder of some of the biggest yachts in the world. I was expecting a huge, flashy operation. But it’s in a small village, run by a modest Dutch family for four generations. The greatest products in the world are still made by dedicated craftsmen and families – not growth-driven corporations.
Thank you, Robert, for chatting with Luxurylaunches. CNBC’s ‘Secret Lives of the Super Rich’ premiered on Wednesday, September 25th at 9 PM & 9:30 PM ET and will feature eight new half-hour shows with two back-to-back episodes airing each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.