Between 2010 and 2015, the global private wealth held by women grew from $34 trillion to $51trillion—an increase of 50% in merely five years. Women are accumulating wealth 7% faster per year than men. The number of self-made female billionaires joining the Forbes Billionaire List each year is outpacing the increase in the number of billionaires overall. Moreover, most of the private wealth that will change hands in the coming decades is likely to go to women. In refocusing the goals of wealth creation, wealthy women are reshaping single-family offices and the private wealth market that serves them. Looking forward, a rising generation of matriarchs will be tasked with making long-term plans for the fortunes they inherit from the husbands they divorce or outlive, as well as those they create on their own. How do women think about legacy? Will they do a better job at assuring the preservation of generational wealth?
Despite all the gains made by women over the last forty years, when it comes to finances, “Father knows best” is still the reigning ethos.
We were struck by the recent findings of Our Own Worth, a survey of wealthy women conducted by UBS Global Wealth Management. The study found that women are overwhelmingly involved in day-to-day money matters—with 80% paying bills and 85% regularly managing expenses. Yet, all around the world that engagement does not extend to longer-term finances.
About 82% of women of all ages told UBS that they thought men know more about investing and financial planning. In a counterintuitive twist, millennial women, the self-proclaimed feminists, are even more likely than earlier generations to defer investing and financial planning to their spouses.
Sixty percent of women between the ages of 20 and 34 defer investment and financial planning to their spouses. As Kathleen Entwistle, a private wealth advisor at UBS, told Bloomberg: “It feels overwhelming to them. The idea isn’t: are men or women better? It’s the dynamics of the way we’ve been taught, brought up, and the way we think about these things.”
Mother deferred to father, just as her mother did before her. The male-driven financial industry, as we have detailed in these pages, has failed to build a wealth proposition around women. Female investors tend to view the financial industry as male-oriented and unwelcoming, which leads them to rely on an informal network of advice. Globally, more than two-thirds of female investors feel their wealth manager or private banker—the vast majority of whom are men—misunderstand their goals. The facts confirm this disconnect—70% of women change advisors within one year of their partner passing away.
[We continue to experience this on a personal level—indeed it has become somewhat of an inside joke. For every wealthy widow that enters our personal orbit, we will undoubtedly receive dozens of emails in the subsequent days seeking our advice on rebalancing her portfolio. No matter how poised or accomplished these visitors have been in their careers, when it comes to financial matters, they are rudderless.]
Woefully underserved and eager for greater financial empowerment, women represent an incredible growth opportunity for the financial industry. Those private banks and advisories that get it right will not only outperform their peers, they will reap the ongoing, less quantifiable benefits. As Jennifer Lemieux, co-chair of RBC Wealth Management Canada’s Women Advisory Board, explains: “Women are phenomenal clients to have, as we are three times more likely to refer than our male clients. We are storytellers, we do have that sisterhood feeling and we are always looking to support and champion people that we feel have done well by us.”
Women will feature prominently in one of the greatest transfers of wealth ever seen. In the U.S. alone, an estimated $42 trillion is expected to be transferred across generations in the next thirty years. The accelerated pace of the transfer, combined with intergenerational differences in demands and expectations, will make this job even harder. How can wealth advisors best advise the family matriarchs of tomorrow?
Understanding what does not work, is arguably a good place to start and the bar is stunningly low. It is estimated that 70% of wealthy families will lose their wealth by the second generation and 90% will lose it by the third. Indeed, the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” saying is so universal that nearly every culture has some version of it. In Japan, the expression goes, “rice paddies to rice paddies in three generations.” The Scottish: “The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells, and his son begs.” In China, “wealth never survives three generations.”
What is to blame for the destruction of wealth and why do so many families experience it?
In 2002, Roy Williams of The Williams Group published the results of a 25-year long survey of 3,250 instances of generational wealth transfers. Williams observed that 70% of those transfers failed—where failure was defined as involuntary loss of control of the assets. He confirmed what had been observed for centuries—it is very difficult for families to transition wealth from one generation to the next. Despite the British monarchy promulgating a legal structure to keep wealth in the hands of a few aristocratic families, wealth stability was even elusive in 1776. As Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations: “In commercial countries, therefore, riches, in spite of the most violent regulations of law to prevent their dissipation, very seldom remain long in the same family.” Williams’ research not only confirmed Smith’s observation, it went a step further and explored the reasons for those failures.
What Williams found was that only a very small percentage of the failures were the consequence of poor technical advice. The legal, accounting, trust and estates teams delivered because those professionals spent the time and money on accreditation and continuing education to keep current with the myriad moving parts and ambiguities of changing estate and tax law. Rather, 97% of the failures were attributable to the family itself—the absence of a family mission (12%), unprepared spouses and children (25%), and, above all, the breakdown of communication and trust (60%).
Yet, if you ask wealthy families why the wealth transfer fails, only a sliver traces the failure back to an internal communication failure or trust breakdown. Instead, the majority blames market turndowns on poor investment advice. Indeed, intergenerational family wealth has all the human biases and blind spots that fuel tragic endings.
In the past few months we have tried to drill down as best we could on the causes of failed wealth transfers. We were struck by an observation made by Dennis Jaffe, an expert on family business leadership and multi-generational wealth. Jaffe points out that the “shirtsleeves” curse has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Heirs are expected to be passive and not contribute, and, to nobody’s surprise, that is often how they act. Given a small but significant income from a restrictive trust that asks nothing of them, they respond by acting like eternal children.
By focusing attention on what can go wrong—which is certainly possible—the shirtsleeves myth diverts attention from another, more promising dynamic: seeing the treasure and value in the human, intellectual and spiritual capital of the rising generation. Far from being lazy or unmotivated, many inheritors want to use their family’s wealth to expand the family’s mission to include socially responsible business, investment and community service.
In some families, lack of validation and support for new ideas causes the family members with the most talent to go elsewhere, while those with a more limited purview and capability remain in the family business. As a result, the shirtsleeves situation often arises from the behavior of the older generation and their unclear invitation to the next generation, rather than from the supposed lack of motivation of an “entitled” next generation.
Essentially, the “shirtsleeves” myth reinforces most of the other failure points. If there is little confidence in the next generation, there is little incentive for the family leader to pass the baton. Knowing when to let go is key to a successful wealth transfer. Moreover, a lack of confidence in the next generation makes it unlikely that heirs will ever be properly educated about money, including given a working knowledge of investing fundamentals.
Failing to define a clear purpose or mission for the family wealth is another key origin of unsuccessful transfers. Implicit in any such shared purpose is an ongoing connection with the family story.
As G. Scott Clemons, Chief Investment Strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman, wrote recently for Women & Wealth Magazine: “Conversations about mission are an opportunity to align values with wealth, and more often than not take the simple form of storytelling. What is the genesis of the wealth? What risks did mom and dad (or grandma or grandad) take? How did they succeed along the way, and to what do they attribute that success? What would they have done differently?”
Philanthropy plays a powerful role in this exercise. As Clemons adds: “Not only does it provide a tangible expression of a family’s mission and values, it also offers an opportunity for the next generation to learn the technicals of wealth management through interaction with advisors and real-time scenarios.”
Consider the Rockefeller family. Now entering its seventh generation with as many as 170 heirs, the family has not only managed to maintain substantial wealth, it has avoided the legal clashes and family feuds that mark most dynasties. In a rare interview last year, David Rockefeller Jr. stated that philanthropy has served as “the strongest glue” keeping family values and wealth connected and intact. Family members are encouraged to be involved in the foundations and help choose the causes they support. By making “giving” the center of the family’s identity, the Rockefellers have maintained the core values of John Rockefeller Jr.— “For every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.”
Here’s what we know to be true about women in general and wealthy women in particular:
Women care about the “why”. Female investors have a greater tendency to deploy their wealth in a value-based way. One of the biggest drivers of the growing interest in impact investing and ESG data is the fact that women are gaining access to significant capital and want to invest that capital into financial opportunities that align with their values.
Women are born philanthropists. Women give more than men, with 93% of high net worth women giving to charity, 56% volunteering, 6% participating in impact investing and 23% serving on nonprofit boards, according to a 2018 U.S. Trust study. (That’s compared to 87% of male donors and 41% of men who volunteer.)
Studies indicate that women leaders not only approach succession in a way that values a company’s longevity, but that they also excel at transmitting core values to the next generation. There is a reason the world’s largest, longest-lasting family business are advancing women in leadership roles at an unprecedented pace. Focused on preserving a legacy for future generations, family businesses prioritize long-term sustainability over short-term gains. Consistent with this focus, the average tenure of a family business CEO is 20 years, versus six years for the CEO of a public company. This long-term view aligns with women’s management style.
Female leaders aim to foster inclusive environments and characterize their focus on people and relationships. While men tend to be better at learning and performing a single task at hand, women tend to display superior memory and social cognition skills, making them on average better equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.
Women have been navigating family dynamics since the beginning of time. In Williams’ study, the largest cause of wealth transfer failure was a breakdown of communication and trust. There is a reason this is the frequent failure point—family communication, especially about money matters, is a remarkably-complicated charge, one that requires constant attention and nurturing.
Facilitating inclusive transmission of a family’s purpose as opposed to defaulting to the “shirtsleeves” myth requires devotion to the entire family and its ever-shifting dynamics, including the ability to recognize and promote the natural strengths of a multitude of different individuals. It also mandates a willingness to build a team of formal and informal advisors to provide independent perspective, and the openness to cede to this team’s better judgment and recommendations, especially those that are uncomfortable but necessary. Few mortals are inherently skilled to do all of this, but women, eternally curious, are arguably open to learning.