Background and basics of a buzz word: ‘Plutonomy,’ Part One

August 31st, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

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Economy, foreclosures, lending, medical costs

Accordingly, as closely as we can, we monitor stories and studies about bankruptcy itself, of course–but also these core subjects: economy and unemployment; foreclosures and housing starts; lending (mortgages and credit-card); and the health-care system (including medical bankruptcies).

Our latest three posts are as follows:

Origins of ‘Plutonomy’

Today we’ll look at a relatively new term: plutonomy,apparently first used by Citigroup analyst Ajay Kapur in a 2005 paper for clients. An October paper, also crediting two other Citigroup analysts, refers to a September paper but then expounds on the term, although somewhat scattered in and among pitches to potential clients. Some of the paper reads like working notes, but following are selected, crucial excerpts, with some of our own reformatting for clarity’s sake :

  • The World is dividing into two blocs–the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., U.K. and Canada are the key Plutonomies–economies powered by the wealthy. Continental Europe (ex-Italy) and Japan are in the egalitarian bloc.
  • In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc.
  • [T]he world is dividing into two blocs–the plutonomies, where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest. Plutonomies have occurred before in sixteenth century Spain, in seventeenth century Holland, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties in the U.S.
  • What are the common drivers of Plutonomy?
    1. Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains,
    2. creative financial innovation,
    3. capitalist-friendly cooperative governments,
    4. an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation,
    5. the rule of law,
    6. and patenting inventions.
  • Often these wealth waves involve great complexity, exploited best by the rich and educated of the time.

How to participate

The idea for the analyst team, of course, was to sell a method by which their clients could prosper–in other words, trading strategies to exploit the wealth-gap economy.  One way, they wrote, was to buy equities in general. But better yet, buy stocks of companies that cater to the really wealthy–hence, the “Plutonomy basket”: a mix of equities issued by companies that cater to the very rich. In the pre-recession era the team was writing, they offered a basket of “luxury stocks” that had returned an enviable “an annualized return of 17.8%, handsomely outperforming indices such as the S&P500.”

And why not? After all, the team reasons, “Perhaps one reason that societies allow plutonomy, is because enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant. Why kill it off, if you can join it?”

In short, a plutonomy seems merely an embodiment of the old adage, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” To a certain, the adage holds true.

Of and by the wealthy

But the rich/richer, poor/poorer framework aphoristically glosses over the middle class. In that sense, plutonomy is a portmanteau, blending economy with plutocracy: an economy driven by the wealthy, of and by the wealthy.

It is in that sense that a Wall Street Journal blogger admonishes us in an Aug.5 “Wealth Report” to face the “surprising” recognition of “just how much or our consumer economy is now dependent on the rich, and how that share has increased as the U.S. emerges from recession.”

Blogger Robert Frank notes that, “According to new research from Moody’s Analytics, the top 5% of Americans by income account for 37% of all consumer outlays . . . .

“By contrast, the bottom 80% by income account for 39.5% of all consumer outlays.

“It is no surprise, of course, that the rich spend so much, since they earn a disproportionate share of income. According to economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the top 10% of earners captured about half of all income as of 2007.”

A question of stability

To his credit, Frank also recognizes the inherent problem:

“The data may be a further sign that the U.S. is becoming a Plutonomy–an economy dependent on the spending and investing of the wealthy. And Plutonomies are far less stable than economies built on more evenly distributed income and mass consumption. ‘I don’t think it’s healthy for the economy to be so dependent on the top 2% of the income distribution, [Moody's chief economist Mark] Zandi said. He added that, ‘In the near term it highlights the fragility of the recovery.’ ”

However, Frank stops short on two fronts, the evolving recognition that:

  1. the economy already has become a Plutonomy, and
  2. some experts believe the parameters “of and by” have been transcended, such that what we have now is an economy “of, by, and for” the wealthy.

[EDITOR'S NOTE--Continued in Part Two.]


The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13