Business
1:38 pm
Tue May 27, 2014

World's Richest People Meet, Muse On How To Spread The Wealth

Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 8:53 am

Talk of economic mobility and the wealth gap is hardly new. From the Occupy movement to President Obama's re-election campaign, income inequality has been in the spotlight for years.

Even so, the "inclusive capitalism" conference in London on Tuesday broke new ground. Not because of the conversation, but because of the people having it.

The 250 people from around the world invited to attend this one-day conference do not represent "the 99 percent," or even the 1 percent. It's more like a tiny fraction of the 1 percent.

"We have $30 trillion of assets under management in the room," says conference organizer Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who runs E.L. Rothschild, a major investment firm she and her husband, of the storied Rothschild banking family, founded in 2003.

That amount — $30 trillion — is roughly one-third of the total investable wealth in the world. If money is power, then this is the most powerful group of people ever to focus on income inequality.

"If this bulk of capital decides that they are going to invest in companies that aren't only thinking about the short-term profit," says Rothschild, "then we will see corporate behavior change."

The titans of commerce and finance didn't necessarily fly to this meeting in London out of a sense of ethics or moral duty, though that may be a motivation for some. For many, says Rothschild, it's a sense of self-preservation. Capitalism appears to be under siege.

"It's true that the business of business is not to solve society's problems," she says. "But it is really dangerous for business when business is viewed as one of society's problems. And that is where we are today."

Prince Charles kicked off the morning's proceedings.

"What is so impressive about today's gathering is that every one of you, ladies and gentlemen, is so well-placed to take the kind of action needed to create a new form of inclusive capitalism," he told the conference.

Defining Inclusive Capitalism

That phrase, "inclusive capitalism," is deliberately broad. People talked about it as valuing long-term investment over short-term profits. Some mentioned environmental stewardship; others focused on treating workers well.

Christine Lagarde, who runs the International Monetary Fund, said it is a way to rebuild trust in the financial system.

"So the big question is, how can we restore and sustain trust?" she asked in her keynote speech. "First and foremost, by making sure that growth is more inclusive and that the rules of the road favor the many and not just the few."

She said this will be a hard slog, because there will be winners and losers, "and the likely losers are those who have the biggest voice, because they have the largest means."

Later in the day, the group heard speeches from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Bank of England chief Mark Carney.

Critics suggest this may all be optics. The conference delegates didn't sign on to a specific action plan, or even publicly endorse a set of values.

"I suspect the return on investment in this conference is astonishingly low," says Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. "It sort of surprises me that you have a bunch of people in the investment community who view this as having a significant return on investment in some way, whether the return is in people patting them on the back and saying, 'Thanks for caring about us,' or in actual changes to policies."

Conference organizer Rothschild says there will be follow-up with all of the delegates, but she made a conscious decision not to ask for any commitments up front.

"Even for me," she says laughing, "I thought that would be a little pushy."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Some of the richest people in the world met in London for a conference today. They're talking about what they call inclusive capitalism - how to make the economy work for more people. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports it's a familiar message, with some unexpected messengers.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: People have been talking about economic mobility and the wealth gap for years. Remember the Occupy Movement?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS: We are 99 percent.

SHAPIRO: That video was from 2011. In 2012, themes of income inequality were central to President Obama's re-election campaign. And now he talks about the issue nonstop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe this is the defining challenge of our time - making sure our economy works for every working American.

SHAPIRO: So this conversation isn't new. What's noteworthy today in London is the people having it. It's not the 99 percent. It's not even the one percent. It's closer to the top one-tenth of one percent. Two hundred fifty people from 37 countries, by invitation only. Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who runs a major investment firm, organized this conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

LYNN FORESTER DE ROTHSCHILD: We have $30 trillion of assets under management in the room.

SHAPIRO: Thirty trillion dollars is about a third of the total investable wealth in the world. If money is power, then this is the most powerful group of people ever to focus on this issue.

ROTHSCHILD: So if this bulk of capital decides that they are going to invest in companies that aren't only thinking about the short-term profit, then we will see corporate behavior change.

SHAPIRO: Rothschild says the titans of finance did not necessarily fly to this meeting in London out of a sense of ethics or moral duty. For many, it's self-preservation - a feeling that capitalism is under siege.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

ROTHSCHILD: It's true that the business of business is not to solve society's problems. But it is really dangerous for business when business is viewed as one of society's problems. And that is where we are today.

SHAPIRO: Prince Charles kicked off the morning's proceedings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRINCE CHARLES: What is so impressive about today's gathering is that everyone of you, ladies and gentlemen, is so well placed to take the kind of action needed to create a new form of inclusive capitalism.

SHAPIRO: That phrase - inclusive capitalism - is deliberately broad. People talked about it as valuing long-term investment over short-term profits. Some mention environmental stewardship. Others focus on treating workers well or redistributing wealth. Christine Lagarde, who runs the International Monetary Fund, said it's a way to rebuild trust in the financial system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

CHRISTINE LAGARDE: So the big question is how can we restore and sustain trust? Well, first and foremost, by making sure that growth is more inclusive and that the rules of the game lead to a level playing field favoring the many, not just the few.

SHAPIRO: Later in the day, the group heard speeches from President Clinton and Bank of England chief Mark Carney. Critics suggest this may all be optics. The conference delegates did not sign onto a specific action plan or even publicly endorse a set of values.

SCOTT WINSHIP: I suspect the return on investment in this conference is astonishingly low.

SHAPIRO: Scott Winship is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

WINSHIP: It sort of surprises me, I think, that you have a bunch of people in the investment community who apparently are viewing this as having a significant return on investment, in some way, whether the return is in people kind of patting them on the back and saying, thanks for caring about us, or in actual changes to policies.

SHAPIRO: Conference organizer Rothschild says there will be follow-up with all of the delegates. But she made a conscious decision not to ask for any commitments up front. Even for me, she says, laughing, I thought that would be a little pushy. Ari Shapiro. NPR News. London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.