Wealth lists

Who's the Richest of Them All?

Millionenvertrag zwischen chinesischen und brasilianischen Flugzeugunternehmen
Why fly first class when you can own the whole plane? Source: Picture Alliance

Every Christmas, Germany’s central bank sends a selection of Germany’s wealthy a special, fiscal-themed advent calendar. The gift is thanks for the recipient’s participation in the “Private Households and Finance” survey the Bundesbank has performed every three years since 2010. The survey aims to gauge the assets of the 10 percent of Germans that hold 60 percent of the country’s wealth. Some 2,500 households participated in the third iteration of the study, including 380 millionaires, 40 of those worth more than €5 million ($5.9 million).

“People in Germany don’t like to talk about their own money,” says Philipp Marek, an economist in the Bundesbank’s research center and the source of the advent calendars. “Data from households with high net worths are especially important.” Mr. Marek and his people conduct the survey personally, spending more than an hour with participants. The figures in the resultant publicly available report are the “most detailed wealth statistics that exist in Germany.”

But what does that mean? The participants don’t have to tell the truth and there is no mechanism for cross-checking the answers. Even Mr. Marek admits that the survey doesn’t reach into the stratosphere of billionaires. And if these are the most detailed statistics available, then how do the country’s financial magazines so confidently announce their rankings of the richest Germans every year? And it’s not just German magazines – banks and consultancies around the world have special divisions devoted to divining the assets of the well-heeled; UBS, Allianz and CapGemini to name a few.

Daniel Kessler works in the Zurich office of consultancy BCG and is responsible for the European aspect of his employer’s annual Global Wealth report, one of the many reports and rankings that claim to have a bead on the wealth and wealthy from around the world. “In industrialized countries, we rely on surveys of central banks,” Kessler says, explaining the formulas that are then used to extrapolate final figures and add some legitimacy. When it comes to the super-rich? “We orient ourselves on the relevant rankings,” he says.

Tools 10th: Reinhold Würth Reinhold Würth, 82, and his family squeaked onto the list with €9.2 billion in assets, €200 million more than last year. Würth isn't quite a household name in Germany, but most homes have bits of the company's hardware or were built with Würth tools. Source: DPA
Automotive Supplier 9th: Heinz Hermann Thiele To be honest, there are fewer auto heirs than one would expect on a list of Germany's blue bloods – and not a single brewer. But Heinz Hermann Thiele, 76, is one of the former. He owns most of braking-system maker Knorr Bremse and his family has a net worth of €9.6 billion, €100 million more than in 2016. Source: Knorr Bremse
Logistics 8th: Klaus-Michael Kühne Hi Klaus-Michael Kühne! You're 80 years old and worth a cool €11 billion, which is €1.6 billion more than last year (nice returns, can we get the telephone number of your financial adviser?). This billionaire is the son of the co-founder of Kühne + Nagel, a shipping company. Source: DPA
Retail 7th: Michael Otto If you say "Otto", most Germans will either think of goofy '80s comedian Otto Waalkes or Otto, a mail-order and online empire. The latter was founded by the father of 74-year-old Michael Otto, who is seated on the right in this picture. That's his wife Christl in the middle. The guy on the left is Rüdiger Grube, but he doesn't have the €13 billion of the Ottos and didn't add €1 billion to his wealth last year. Source: DPA
Discount Groceries 6th: Albrecht Family Two of Germany's richest families got that way by helping the country save money. The Albrecht brothers founded Aldi discount grocers in the late 1940s and now their fortune is divided into Aldi south and Aldi north. Now in her late 50s, Babette Albrecht is the widow of one of the founder's sons. The Aldi north clan has €18 billion, €800 million more than last year, in part by running Trader Joe's in the US. Source: DPA
Aldi South 5th: Albrechts and Hesters The heirs of Karl Albrecht, the other Aldi founder, have done better than the rest of the family. The heirs – the Albrecht and Heister families – are now worth €21.5 billion, €1.5 billion more than last year. There are pictures out there, we just don't have the rights. Source: Getty Images
Ball Bearings 4th: Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler, 76, and her son Georg, 52, took a mid-sized ball-bearing maker and made it a major automotive supplier with the controversial takeover of tire company Continental. They're worth €22 billion, €500 million more than last year. That's the CEO of their namesake company on the left. Like Georg, he's probably regretting the green neckties. Source: DPA
Discount Grocery 3rd: Dieter Schwarz Aldi isn't the only discount grocery chain in Germany and it's not the only one that made its founder rich. Lidl also did it for Dieter Schwarz, 78. The company he founded in the 1970s has now brought him €22 billion, €3 billion more than last year. He doesn't like to be photographed, but his shopping carts do. Source: DPA
Cars, Chemicals 2nd: Susanne Klatten Finally, somebody who made money in cars – and chemicals. Susanne Klatten, 55, inherited control of drugmaker Altana from her parents as well as a sizeable BMW stake. She and her brother Stefan (next slide) are worth €31.5 billion, €1.5 billion more than last year. She's far more visible than most German billionaires. Source: DPA
Cars, Chemicals 2nd: Stefan Quandt Stefan Quandt is 50 and everything else you need to know about him was on the previous slide. Source: DPA
Coffee, Fashion 1st: The Reimanns The Reimann family's wealth goes back to 1823 when Johann Adam Benckiser got into chemicals. The holdings were willed to nine adopted children in 2003, but four siblings bought the other five out. The money is now consolidated in JAB Holdings, an investment group with brands such as Stumptown Coffee, Keurig and Coty perfumes. The serious man in the picture is Peter Harf, who heads JAB. The Reimanns are worth €33 billion, €4 billion more than last year. That's a lot of coffee. Source: DPA

This is a problem in Germany. Since the country did away with wealth taxes and standardized capital gains taxes in 2009, no dependable statistics exist beyond the Bundesbank’s voluntary survey. In fact, a single journalist is considered to be the biggest expert on the subject – Klaus Boldt. Mr. Boldt has cobbled together lists of Germany’s wealthy regularly since 1999 when he was an editor for Manager Magazin. He has a questionable but possibly more accurate method of data gathering: Mr. Boldt publishes a list and then waits for those included to call, demand a correction or sue, thereby indirectly dialing in the ranking’s accuracy. “Our list is continually updated,” he says.

Mr. Boldt moved to Swiss financial magazine Bilanz four years ago, taking his experience, contacts and data with him. His files include information on 1,400 people with assets supposedly above €100 million. But Mr. Boldt admits some names are on the list because of celebrity, not net worth. “Of course we try to be as exact as possible but in the end it’s a journalistic project, which means it’s also entertainment.” He believes his list is more accurate now than ever, but with one exception: he thinks there are a lot of super-rich people he doesn’t actually know about.

General Views Of The Principality Of Monaco
Rolling in money. Source: Bloomberg

Which raises the one unasked question of the highly publicized rankings of the world’s rich – do they matter? “People who appear on the various rich-rankings don’t necessarily play a relevant economic role as individuals,” says Thomas Bauer, vice president of the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research. That’s especially true in Germany, experts say, because the super-rich are traditionally entrepreneurs, such as the founders – and heirs – of discount grocery stores Lidl and Aldi, with little political clout. By comparison, the super-rich in America are often oligarchs like Donald Trump or financial investors like Warren Buffett with large followings.

Discovering whether or not the super-rich are an asset or a liability to Germany would require more research and information on their holdings – chicken, meet egg. But the DIW German Institute for Economic Research hopes to answer that question. It’s asked the German labor ministry for funding to assemble a research panel of 1,000 households with net worths above €2 million. The institute is working on a pre-test and wants to cast a net covering 10,000 such households in hopes of getting 10 percent to commit to the survey, which will also be held every three years.

The DIW’s survey won’t be reliable until the second or third attempt, which will take almost a decade. Until then, Germany will have to rely on advent calendars.

This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: konrad.fischer@wiwo.de

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