We've all heard it. Somebody says offhandedly: "He's really rich."
It's all relative, but even without examining anyone's tax returns, Americans tend to keep an informal score of the local and the national well-to-do folks.
Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who a century ago gave away his fortune for what he considered the social good, reportedly said, "The man who dies rich dies disgraced."
That's why worthy institutions from universities to concert halls to museums carry his name.
Carnegie believed wealth accumulation should be encouraged by government so the rich can help the underprivileged.
Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett, while not intending to give everything away, are modern examples of putting one's money where one's mouth is by donating enormous sums for the good of humanity.
Riches beyond one's wildest dreams can evoke feelings of admiration, hatred, fascination or envy:
Flamboyant junk-bond stars of the 1980s were lionized before ultimately being ostracized.
Upstart venture capitalists in technology in the 1990s were lauded until the bottom fell out.
Executives of private equity firms and hedge funds are the financial stars of today, wielding power and accumulating vast wealth as they acquire scores of businesses, thanks to low interest rates and global liquidity.
Stephen A. Schwarzman has been the magazine cover boy for this new wealth as chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group, which controls nearly 50 companies. It has bought giant enterprises such as Equity Office Properties and Pinnacle Foods, as well as smaller companies. Blackstone had more than $85 billion in revenue and $2.3 billion in profit last year.
Except for a fancy 60th birthday party that included entertainment stars, Schwarzman, his estimated worth about $3 billion, keeps a low profile.
Although Blackstone extolled the virtues of going private as a panacea for corporate America's woes, its own leadership couldn't overlook the successful recent initial public offering of the asset manager Fortress Investment Group LLC. The timing seemed right, so Blackstone is offering an IPO of its own. This should determine the true value of its incredible success and make its principals even richer.
Schwarzman, the hottest fellow on Wall Street, has now ascended to the firmament of super wealthy executives.
How investors accept Blackstone's IPO, how this tightly knit firm deals with shareholder accountability and how its current business cycle plays out remain to be seen. We can only be sure, because great wealth is involved, that the results will ultimately trigger public adoration or disdain. Those feelings remain closely aligned, often with little in between.
Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.