How the Super-Rich Are Coping with the Crisis

The Definition of Rich

But what can be so fascinating about marveling at the immense wealth of other people, day in and day out? "You often deal with very unconventional people who know a great deal," says Weber, who is no stranger to a life of luxury himself. While studying engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, he and a group of colleagues founded a company for trading in futures contracts. At 28, he sold his shares in the business to a British financial operation -- and made a fortune in the process.

Weber considers himself affluent at best, given the different set of standards that applies in his line of work. He considers someone to be rich "if they can have one of the world's most renowned symphony orchestras perform in their garden, and the musicians significantly outnumber the members of the audience."

According to Weber, greed or glamour are no longer the relevant factors among the top few thousand members of the world's moneyed aristocracy. "It's really a matter of ambition, of the need to show everyone that you were right about the execution of an unconventional idea," says Weber, although he himself knows very well that this only half the truth.

There is often little difference between multimillionaires and small investors in terms of their desire to make money. For instance, many were only too willing to place their cash in the hands of Bernard Madoff, the American swindler of the century, who was sentenced last year to a record 150-year prison term.

Hardly anyone was suspicious about the uncanny regularity of Madoff's annual returns. Even the Geneva-based private bank UBP gave its seal of approval to Madoff's supposed money-making machine.

Weber finds all of this inexplicable. Or perhaps he simply refuses to believe that the most primitive of instincts are also felt by his elite clientele.

Trophy Projects

In this exclusive club, Lamborghinis and Learjets are seen as the vices of lightweights. Weber's clients are more interested in immortality, which is a more costly proposition. For instance, they build collections of sinfully expensive antique cars, pay for the complete renovation of their family's home village or purchase the most prominent buildings in town.

"Trophy projects" are what UHNWI bankers call the deals that are not subject to strict economic criteria. "It is not uncommon to see someone overpay to buy the best hotel in a town," says Weber, flashing his brightest therapist's smile. For example, Germany's Oetker baking powder dynasty acquired the exclusive Brenner's Park-Hotel in the German resort town of Baden-Baden. The Schlosshotel Bühlerhöhe, a castle hotel in the Black Forest that legendary German businessman Max Grundig transformed into a luxury paradise, now belongs to Dietmar Hopp, the co-founder of German software giant SAP. And Jürgen Grossmann, the CEO of the German energy company RWE and a billionaire thanks to his ownership of the Georgsmarienhütte group of companies, recently snapped up the exclusive Kulm Hotel in Switzerland's Arosa ski resort.

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