Rich investors face same finance issues

High-end: The Bill Gates of the world may hire a money manager to handle their billions, but they must still play by the same rules as everybody else.

Dollar & Sense

October 03, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Other than buying the pink Cadillac for Mama and fancy gates for the mansion, the average rich guy has to grapple with the same personal finance issues as everybody else.

OK, not quite. But the differences are mostly a matter of degree. The fact remains that even Bill Gates needs a strategy for managing his money that takes his needs and goals into account.

"What's interesting is all of the basic strategies are very similar and a lot of times are the same strategies. They're just on a bigger scale," said Lyle K. Benson Jr., president of L. K. Benson & Co.

Benson's firm specializes in what financial advisers call "high-end clients" -- in his case, investors with between $2 million and $50 million in assets.

Like anyone else, the high-enders have to get a few things straight before they come up with a strategy for nurturing those greenbacks: What are the financial objectives? What risk is acceptable?

Where an average person might respond to that process by cooking up a mix of mutual funds, the champagne set would probably hire a money manager to put together a specific portfolio of stock.

Then there are other options beyond the reach of the lunch pail investor. Venture capital, hedge funds, private placements, international real estate -- all require a high threshold to enter and carry degrees of risk that would make an ordinary person swoon.

Even somebody with pockets like the Marianas Trench ought to watch out for those high-risk investments, said James D. Hardesty of Hardesty Capital Management, who recommends putting no more than 5 percent of assets in venture capital or in real estate.

Some other traditional vehicles for the very wealthy are not necessarily in favor these days. "One area that's been particularly unrewarding has been the use of tax shelters," Hardesty said. The problem is that tax codes change so often they can trap someone in an outdated scheme, he said.

And while some may dream of being a suburban sultan with gold and gems in the basement, the reality is that gold is worth less today than 20 years ago and gems are almost equally unreliable, Hardesty said.

More and more people have had to grapple with such dilemmas in recent years, thanks to the unprecedented prosperity of the stock market.

"I've worked with quite a few that have built up their own business and then sold it to a publicly traded company," Benson said. Flush with cash or -- more likely -- with a hunk of stock in the company that bought them out, the newly prosperous seek help in protecting their resources.

"We're seeing a lot of young people that have become very wealthy," said John Devine, senior tax manager for SC&H Financial Group.

Even so, the majority of high-end investors are older people who have worked their whole lives to amass their wealth. But because people are living longer and staying healthy and active late in life, financial planners do not distinguish as much as they once did between young rich and old rich.

The older people have too much ahead of them to just withdraw and go conservative, while the younger ones ought to go ahead and make plans for the estate they will -- sooner or later -- leave behind.

"A lot of these people are 38 years old, they have young children, and they're kind of apprehensive about putting together a formal estate plan," Devine said.

It only takes one number to motivate them: 55 percent. That's how much of the estate that is going to be consumed by taxes before the heirs get their share.

So that's another difference between the very rich and everybody else. They need financial planners to figure out ways to get rid of their money, pushing it out to heirs or charities before death brings the tax man calling.

They can give relatives a gift of up to $10,000 a year, tax-free, and a husband and wife can set up a dynastic trust of about $1.3 million that will be available for children and grandchildren without being eaten up by estate taxes, Devine said.

Assuming, that is, that they end up being the designated recipients. Financial planners learn a lot about the inner workings of wealthy families.

"Sometimes it's a battle of, `Do I want to take away the drive of my kids by making them very wealthy, or do I want to allow them to develop the same drive I have that made me what I am?' " said Devine. "You have to be willing to listen to their concerns and objectives and try to take some of the emotion out of it and give them ideas for how to deal with the situation."

And sometimes a planner learns valuable lessons, such as: "I realize now that one thing that is critical to wealthy people is you have to have a great hairdresser," said Hardesty.

One of his wealthiest clients, he said, asked Hardesty's firm to manage her hairdresser's finances so the woman could save enough for her daughter to go to college.

The hairdresser had nowhere near the $400,000 in assets that is usually a prerequisite for Hardesty's services, but he took her on. "Now she's probably one of my favorite clients," he said.

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