Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who exactly is rich these days?

Who exactly is rich these days? In other words, what criteria should we use to judge that someone is rich? In recent tax cut debates there seems to be a presumption that $250,000 of income is kind of the dividing line, but I don't quite buy it.

To me, the primary criterion for judging someone as being rich should be that they can live a relatively affluent lifestyle without working. In other words being rich is not about income per se, but a question of wealth. If you have sufficient wealth that you can live your affluent lifestyle solely on investment income from your wealth, then I would say that you are rich. And that is after taxes and after inflation. And that also requires a two-to-one safety margin so that you need not worry about what the stock market is doing or the state of the economy on either a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or even annual basis.

Put another way, being rich means you never have to worry about money.

That is what separates the rich from the middle class -- the latter have some money (unlike the poor or lower class who don't have enough money for the essentials of daily life), but are constantly worrying about it, frequently because they have chosen to live a level of affluence beyond their means (averaged over booms and busts.)

So, given that base definition, how much money (wealth) do you need to be considered rich?

Even back in early August 2007, just before the first big crumble of the financial crisis, in Who wants to be a millionaire? I suggested that $50 million in liquid investments was the magic number. At the beginning of April 2008, as the financial crisis was starting to rumble on the backburner with increasing fury, in Are you wealthy? I reconsidered but reaffirmed that $50 million number. And today, after further reconsideration and calculation I also reaffirm that $50 million number.

I think it is reasonable to say an income of $250,000 (from your investments) is the rock-bottom low-end of being rich. Simply avoiding work is not enough, you need to afford some significant degree of affluence, so that you at least look rich (although you may make a tactical decision to "dress down" so that you do not appear to be rich even if you are.)

For purposes of discussion I will assume a very conservative investment style consistent with no worrying about how your investments are doing. To me, that means long-term Treasury bonds. You can choose other investments based on your own risk tolerance, but for the purposes of defining worry-free rich, Treasury bonds fit the bill.

If you bought 30-year Treasury bonds at the most recent auction you got a yield of 4.75%. If you bought that same bond on the open market on Friday, the yield was 4.68%. For purposes of discussion, I'll presume that you buy only at the quarterly auctions.

Ignoring taxes and inflation for the moment, if you bought those 4.75% Treasuries, you would need $5.3 million of them to give you that $250,000 annual income. Unfortunately, taxes are not zero and inflation is not zero. Assuming the most recent annual headline inflation of 1.6%, that 4.75% becomes 3.15% and now you need $8 million for that same income level. I am presuming that you want that $250,000 income to "keep pace with inflation." There is no state or local income tax on Treasuries and I calculate the federal effective tax rate to be 27.05% using the 2010 federal tax tables. You may have deductions too, but let's start by being conservative. 4.75% minus 1.6% for inflation and 27.05% taxes gives us an effective yield of 2.30%, meaning that you would need Treasures in the amount of $10.9 million to give you that magical $250,000 annual income.

But wait... didn't I say earlier that you needed $50 million and this calculation shows that $11 million will do it? The answer is a classic "Yes, but..."

It's all about assumptions.

First of all, if you really want to be conservative, you need what Warren Buffett's mentor Ben Graham called a "margin of safety." There are all sorts of crazy things that can happen in the real world, let alone the worlds of economics and finance. So, I am going to insist that a two-to-one margin of safety be used to judge someone as being rich. This is an important factor if you want to be able to sleep at night and not have to worry about money. So, that $10.9 million would really be $21.8 million. But even that is still far short of $50 million.

Inflation may currently be 1.6%, but that is historically quite low and we have seen times when it was 3% or even 4% or on occasion higher. So, to be conservative, I would say it would be better to assume a 3% inflation rate.

Treasury yields can also fluctuate significantly, so to be conservative I will knock that 4.75% yield down to 4.25%, which is what it was in the preceding auction.

So, assuming you want $250,000 per year, Treasury bonds yield 4.25%, inflation at 3%, and taxes at 27.05%, my calculation comes up with an effective yield of 0.91%, which translates into needed wealth of $27.4 million. Add in that two-to-one safety margin and you get $54.8 million, modestly more than my $50 million suggestion, but, lets just call it $50 million since we have been quite conservative in its assumptions.

Another assumption I made was that you need to live on income only, not liquidation of principal. Better to plan on leaving the $50 million as inheritance to family or charity rather that put the vagaries of fate in the financial markets into play and risk the potential for introducing worry into the lifestyle of the supposed "rich."

So where does that leave you if you don't have $50 million in liquid wealth (which includes me, by the way)? If you still need to work to earn your $250,000 a year or are only a mere millionaire, you are definitely well-off and upper-middle class, but I wouldn't call you rich or wealthy.

AFAICT, "the rich" is mostly a term of partisan political disparagement and a tool for class warfare than an attempt at economic accuracy. Somehow, some liberal politicians have decreed that an income level of $250,000 defines "rich." It would be interesting to know who precisely started the "meme" of $250,000 of income meaning someone is "rich."

In any case, my number for "rich" is $50 million in liquid investments with an after-tax, after-inflation yield of 0.91%. Anything less than that and you are just pretending to be rich.

-- Jack Krupansky