The saying, or at least the sentiment, sounds familiar in any language: “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”
The adage is often attributed to Andrew Carnegie, but the notion that family wealth ends up squandered travels far. “Stable to stars to stable,” an Italian version goes. “From paddy to paddy in three generations,” runs the Chinese saying.
But in an era of mind-boggling wealth and gaping inequality there seems little danger of that happening any time soon to the world’s 25 richest clans, who control $1.1 trillion of wealth, according to data compiled by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
From Mars bars to Hermes scarves, supermarkets to hotels and data firms to drug makers, the source of this wealth is varied and its scale is startling: more than the market cap of Apple, all the deposits held by Citigroup or the entire GDP of Indonesia.
And any calculation is likely to be a lowball figure. The wealth of families like the Rothschilds or Rockefellers is too diffuse to value. The nature of many dynastic fortunes — backed by decades and sometimes centuries of assets and dividends — can obfuscate the true extent of their holdings. Clans whose source of wealth is currently unverifiable or derives primarily from the state, such as the sprawling House of Saud, are also absent.