Dominic Lawson: Rich people lack something vital – even more money

Most of us would be content with £873m. But not the likes of David Ross

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Suppose you won £20m with a lottery ticket. Would you a) feel very happy that you no longer needed to think about money and look forward to living off the interest on your newly-acquired capital? Or b) think that this was a fantastic opportunity to make more capital and use your win as collateral for debt-financed investments in a range of ventures?

If the answer is a, then you are a normal human being. If the answer is b. then you are already a self-made multimillionaire. I've never quite understood what F Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said that "the rich are different from you and me", but Hemingway was certainly being trite when he allegedly responded: "Yes, they have more money".

How else could we explain, for example, the behaviour of the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, David Ross? Mr Ross has had to resign from his company, and various others, after he admitted that he had secretly pledged his 136,400,000 shares in Carphone Warehouse – not to mention shares in other enterprises – as collateral for various unwise investments in the commercial property market. In last year's Sunday Times Rich List, Mr Ross's fortune was valued at £873m. Now he could be worth, on paper, less than nothing at all.

Most of us would be content with £873m, or indeed a hundredth of that – but not David Ross. He would rather risk it all – although he would never have thought of it like that when he pledged his shares to the bankers in return for their loans. The point, however, is that it would only have been by taking a great risk – giving up a secure salaried career to take a punt on an entirely new business concept – that David Ross became worth £873m in the first place. There are very few self-made multimillionaires, if any, who have not taken risks which would make the rest of us unable to sleep at night, or keep our food down.

Rupert Murdoch, for example, more than once staked his entire company and family wealth with gigantic bets on new technology – most notably satellite television. I recall a conversation with another multibillionaire who had borrowed enormous sums to set up what was in effect an entirely new industrial process, and he told me that it was impossible to become truly rich as an entrepreneur unless you were prepared to take risks which your rivals would regard as excessive.

This, in part, explains why such people can be high up in the Rich Lists one year, and fodder for the liquidators the next. The very characteristic which enabled them to make them a vast fortune also leads them into perdition.

Their other characteristic, of course, is that they truly want to be very rich indeed. In fact "want" is an entirely inadequate word. The desire burns within them with an intensity which almost defies rational analysis. In the first place, that is the greed which enables them to override the fear which would deter a more normal person from taking the entrepreneurial risks involved; in the second place, that insatiable hunger is what drives a David Ross to risk his entire fortune in order to make it many times bigger (as, indeed it would have become, if the property market had not collapsed along with his bankers' collateral, the Carphone Warehouse share price).

Over the past few weeks we have see this psychological mechanism cause havoc across continents. In last year's Forbes magazine rich list, Oleg Deripaska was said to be the richest man in Russia, with "a fortune of $28.6bn". Yet this was not enough for Mr Deripaska. He too had borrowed vast sums using his assets as collateral and as the commodity prices on which his company is based plunged, he has been forced to beg Mr Putin's government to help him pay his debts to a syndicate of 13 western banks.

In Germany an allegedly prudent industrialist, 74-year-old Adolf Merckle – said last year by Forbes to be "worth $9.2bn" – went running to the regional government of Baden-Wùrttemberg for help. "The billionaire with empty pockets" – as he was described by Sùddeutsche Zeitung – had lost vast sums on a pure gamble: he had "shorted" Volkswagen shares, which subsequently soared.

Although many want to become rich in order to acquire possessions, this is rarely the prime motivation after the first few years of great wealth. People such as David Ross, Oleg Deripaska and Adolf Merckle have long since owned any house or car which they can ever have wanted. Beyond that, it is simply a question of keeping score.

The more millions, or billions, the better you have proved yourself at the game. This is pure competitiveness, divorced from greed (or even the desire to keep a trophy wife satisfied). It is the testosterone factor, the same basic, unthinking impulse that drives the spermatozoon to flick its little tail faster to reach the egg.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is very hard to think of any self-made women among the world's billionaires (though there are quite a few who have built on substantial inheritances). It is, to use a less gooey analogy, the same desire that drives the greatest of sportsmen: what distinguishes the most successful from those who never quite make it to the very top is not a gulf of talent, but the possession of a desire to succeed which can burn its way through every obstacle.

I suspect that it is something like this which drove Bernard Madoff into creating what has been described as "the world's greatest Ponzi scheme" – a $50bn fraud which has ensnared some of the globe's biggest banks and hedge funds. Mr Madoff had been very wealthy for decades, a former chairman of the Nasdaq stock market and – how bizarre this now seems – an adviser to the Securities and Exchange Commission on market regulation.

My guess is that for many years Mr Madoff's funds had been run perfectly legally, but when the markets began to falter he started to pay income to existing investors out of the capital from newcomers. That way he could still seem to be a "winner" in the investment game – and presumably he had hoped that a pick-up in the stock market would enable him to disguise his chicanery.

It is of course more than possible to be a winner in the game while remaining scrupulously honest and a model of probity. The best example is the world's richest man, Warren Buffett, who has piled up his $60bn (or so), while living in the same modest suburban home for half a century, occasionally emerging to demand that the rich pay more taxes.

Be in no doubt, however: Warren Buffett, whose family went hungry in the Great Depression, had and has an unparalleled desire to come out on top in the money game. In the unlikely event that he entered a lottery and won, you can be sure that he would immediately invest every cent in his own business ventures. Yes; the rich are different.

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