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Why Wall Street secretly loves Thomas Piketty

The market for $1.8-million sports cars is booming. Thomas Piketty could have predicted that.

The superstar French economist rocketed to fame on the popularity of his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which asserts that capitalism has an inherent tendency toward inequality. His thesis instantly elicited howls of outrage from right-wing reviewers, who disliked his take on the free market's supposed tendency to enrich plutocrats. The Wall Street Journal dismissed Prof. Piketty as a "utopian visionary." According to Barron's, he's simply wrong – a pedlar of "unpersuasive theories."

Oddly enough, though, the more practical side of Wall Street – the side that actually invests money in hopes of producing a profit – is making a big bet that he's right. Over the past five years, the S&P Global Luxury Index, which measures the stock market performance of 80 companies that cater to the carriage trade, has nearly doubled the performance of the broader S&P 500 index.

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Money managers may resent Prof. Piketty's book but they appear to love its takeaway notion, especially the implication that the market for expensive goods is just going to keep on getting bigger.

Further evidence for that viewpoint came this week when McLaren Automotive reported that it had made a profit in only its third year of operation. The British auto maker, which was spun out of McLaren Group, the Formula One racer, sells high-performance but road-legal cars that go for about $1.8-million.

This is a company that considers Ferrari and Porsche to be downmarket. Yet it has had no trouble selling out production of its P1 supercar.

Call it the 0.01 per cent market. Before Prof. Piketty and colleagues such as Emmanuel Saez at the University of California in Berkeley came on the scene, economists tended to pooh-pooh concerns about wealth distribution, since the middle class was clearly getting richer and at a pace not wildly different from that of the top 10 per cent of society.

Prof. Piketty and his colleagues changed the debate by focusing attention on the very top tier of society – not the top 10 per cent, but the top 1 per cent, and even more so the very top of that top percentile.

A recent paper by Prof. Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that the richest 0.1 per cent of the U.S. population – those with wealth above $20-million (U.S.) in today's dollars – had increased their share of the nation's overall pie substantially since the 1980s. But even their gains were dwarfed by the increase in the amount of wealth held by the top 0.01 per cent (those worth more than $100-million). Prof. Saez and Prof. Zucman conclude that the United States is now back to the roaring '20s in terms of the wealth share held by the very richest members of society.

There is no agreement about what's causing this phenomenon. Some blame it on globalization, others on the tendency of modern economies to disproportionately reward a few superstars. More than a few observers point the finger at runaway CEO pay, while Prof. Piketty sees it as a side effect of capitalism itself.

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Whatever the mechanism, it's clear that there is now a growing market for goods that cater to this uppermost tier of wealth – thus, the strong demand for $1.8-million sports cars, trophy properties and superyachts.

You can, of course, deplore this tendency. A smarter move, though, may be to invest in it. Companies like Richemont SA (maker of Cartier watches) and Kering SA (owner of the Gucci and Brioni brands) trade on European stock exchanges. More adventurous investors might want to consider rolling the dice on high-end real estate.

To be sure, all these strategies are high risk, especially at today's elevated prices. But if the trends of the past couple of decades continue to hold true, you're investing in a growth area. Just tell your broker that Prof. Piketty sent you.

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About the Author

Ian McGugan is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and has been writing about investing, economics and business for more than 20 years. He joined the Globe and Mail in 2010. He has been executive editor of Canadian Business magazine and founding editor of MoneySense magazine. More

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