Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The inscrutability and idiosyncrasies of billionaires

Choosing between billionaires who like to live their lives frugally and those that believe in blowing up their money is like expressing an opinion on a date based on whether she likes her eggs scrambled or poached.

Ultimately, the date doesn’t care. And more pertinently, it is her egg.

So it is with billionaires and their billions. It is their money and it doesn’t matter to them what we think of their spending habits.

But human beings are programmed to opine and pass judgements. So we hold forth when a member of the ultra-rich club invites Bono to his birthday celebrations though, of course, we would give an arm and a leg to be there!

These philosophical musings are occasioned by the annual Value Investor Conference in Omaha where billionaire Warren Buffett and his close ally Charlie Munger speak every year about a number of issues. Along with all the investment wisdom that the two dole out so generously, which is also reported assiduously by an adoring press, there is the inevitable reference to their conservative lifestyles, including the same modest home and car they’ve had for the last many decades. Year after year, without fail, we are reminded of these habits of the billionaire duo, almost as if they were a critical part of their investment strategies.

This year has been no different. Here’s Yahoo Finance gushing about the Oracle of Omaha: “Warren Buffett carries an American Express card and about $400 in cash."

They are not the only ones though, only the first in a long list of rich people who live like ordinary folks.

Add to that list Swedish billionaire Ingvar Kamprad who founded Ikea and was worth $58 billion at the time of his death last year. For all his money, he was another well-known accumulator of wealth, insisting on driving an old car and looking for bargains at annual sales.

But for every billionaire who wears his miserliness like a badge of honour, there is one who is the exact opposite. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s super yacht is believed to have cost upwards of a billion dollars. Closer home, the wedding of steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal’s only daughter Vanisha to banker Amit Bhatia in 2004 was a multimillion dollar extravaganza in Paris.

And then there are those that refuse to be buttonholed into one or the other extreme.

India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani may spend millions on a child’s wedding, but equally, he is also likely to turn down a fancy meal at a Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant in favour of a vada pav from a roadside stall in Mumbai.

The trouble is we tend to look at these as discrete elements in the billionaire ecosystem and use these anecdotes to form opinions on the person.

That disregards a simple fact: billionaires are necessarily different. Whether it is Jack Ma’s 996 formula for success or Richard Branson’s use of himself as his company’s best marketing tool, they don’t do the ordinary. And in this one aspect, men and women are equal offenders.

The eccentricities of men like Howard Hughes or Graham Pendrill, who donated his millions and went to live with the Masai Mara as an honoured member of the tribe, don’t mean that women billionaires are without idiosyncrasies. American tycoon Leona Helmsley, often called the “Queen of Mean", would rather go to jail than pay her share of taxes while Swiss socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein used part of her millions for a cat appearance using plastic surgery.

There may be a correlation between the extreme behaviour of billionaires and their success. After all, unless you have inherited your wealth, you need to do something extraordinary to make that kind of money. Going to office every morning at nine for 35 years isn’t the route to dollar dreams. As Robert Frost wrote, “The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office."

On a more serious note, Buffett’s great success in making the right investment bets over the years is related to his taking contrary positions. He bet on American Express (Amex) at a time when its stock price had halved following a series of bad loans to Allied Crude Vegetable Oil, which was caught cheating on its inventories. Buffett, who picked up 5% of Amex’s falling stock, made a killing over the next three years. Similarly, Indian billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala made his big breakthrough when he took a punt on Titan at a time when the company was down in the dumps.

This adventurous streak extends to other aspects of the lives of these men and women. Indeed, at one level, Bill Gates decision in 2008 to give up his active role at Microsoft, the company he founded when he was 22, and devote the rest of his life to working on health and poverty issues in the poorest parts of the world is also apiece with this unusual behaviour.

After all, it is from this unpredictability, that some of the most significant human actions emerge. Billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, well known for his unusual behaviour, instituted the $1-million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture given annually to “thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world". In 2018, the prize went to public philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. He may be crazy, but Berggruen has his heart in the right place.

Sundeep Khanna is an executive editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage

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