It’s no secret that the Rothschild family amassed the largest private fortune in modern history, making its inner members some of the greatest billionaires who ever lived.
But the extent of that wealth deserves exploring a little deeper; at one point, their fortune was thought to be larger than the equivalent of the $6.4 trillion accrued by today’s 1,645 billionaires combined. How much larger?
Well, Billionaires Australia has been busy tracking down our contacts and informants, and we can reveal that at one point there is thought to have been as much as $500 trillion in the pockets of just this one family. One thing is for certain, the Forbes’ rich list would have been dominated by Rothschilds if it existed in the 1800s and early 1900s.
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A lack of precise accounts makes it difficult to pinpoint their exact wealth, but sufficient data on the Rothschilds exists to suggest that they are ahead of their rivals the Rockefellers when it comes to being the richest family in the world.
And just what was the secret to becoming the richest family in history? “Concordia, Integritas, Industria” or “unity, integrity, industry”, according to the family motto. History would show that the first two were mere formalities when it came to making money. In the case of the third, they have never been matched.
Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who started the dynasty, was the son of a money lender and goldsmith who settled in a marginalised Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt during the 1740s. He left the city to be an apprentice at a small bank, but returned to start a business selling rare coins, antiques and curiosities, which would become pivotal to the world’s banking system.
The business really took off when he started extending credit to his customers, and he then moved into foreign currency trading and in government loans. By the beginning of the 19th century he was a banker and a very rich one.
The operation was steeped in secrecy, which worked well when acting as the bank of choice for the world’s governments and pulling off deals, which included financing both sides in the Napoleonic wars (it’s thought that the family fortune increased 20-fold by speculating on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Napoleon was defeated by an Anglo-Prussian coalition).
Information was crucial and informants used fast boats, coded letters, flag systems and carrier pigeons to help the family find out what was going on ahead of official sources. The integrity wasn’t matched both ways, however, and Nathan Rothschild’s ability to depress stock prices by using the network of agents to spread rumours, true or false, and then buy the stock up after people panicked was legendary.
At one point, four sons were dispatched to European capitals to take advantage of the rise of capitalism, going to London, Paris, Vienna and Naples to spread the family business. Soaking up the local environments, the French branch developed interests in philanthropy, the arts and winemaking, while the English arm excelled in business, but both sides competed fiercely to add to the fortune.
The Rothschilds’ dominance was cemented by pioneering the bond market, a system of buying and selling government debt. It allowed countries to make investments in projects like the Suez Canal and speculators to earn huge amounts of money, while the Rothschilds sat in the middle taking a cut of everything.
The attitude the family had towards the power they were beginning to obtain over the world’s leaders is a matter of debate. “I care not what puppet is placed upon the throne of England to rule the Empire on which the sun never sets,” says one quote attributed to Nathan: “The man who controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire and I control the British money supply.”
Conspiracy theorists and historians debate whether the quote was real, but it’s often difficult to distinguish myth from fact when dealing with such a mysterious family. One of the wilder conspiracy theories is that they started wars just to profit. However, their reliance on government bonds, which would decrease in price during periods of conflict, makes this seem unlikely.
Whatever the truth, we know founder Mayer Rothschild approached the job of dynasty building with deadly seriousness, stipulating that no record of the family’s wealth would ever be made public, all key positions should be filled by relatives, and that family members should marry first and second cousins to help keep the fortune intact.
Five lines of the Austrian branch of the family have been elevated to Austrian nobility as Barons and in France, the word Rothschild became a synonym for “seemingly endless wealth”.
The Rothschild empire began to falter as commercial banking took hold and by the mid-19th century, they had moved from being traders to fund managers.
Mayers’ descendants continue to make money and it’s clear they remain as important as ever to the global financial markets, even if they have opted to play a more hidden role these days. Rothschild’s Merchant Bank profited from UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known locally as the ‘Iron Lady’, and her privatisation of state-owned industries. And here’s a rare public appearance of Major Edmund Leopold de Rothschild from 2008, when the US bank bailout was being discussed (you can see him walking awkwardly off set at the end):
One of the more prominent modern-day players is David Mayer de Rothschild a British adventurer, ecologist and environmentalist. His middle name is taken from the name of the founder of the Rothschild family banking empire, but he doesn’t carry the same business interests.
Lord Jacob Rothschild chairs RIT Capital Partners, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and appears in the FTSE 250 Index. By its own description it “invests in a widely diversified, international portfolio delivering returns to shareholders in excess of the world’s leading stock markets and its peers”. But, just like a lot of things in the family’s history, its exact activities remain a closely guarded secret. What we can reveal is that the business focuses on publicly traded, but privately held companies; Mayer Rothschild would be proud.
The legacy of that poor orphaned Jewish boy who ended up building an entire dynasty of billionaires lives on today, albeit without the gravitas of being the world’s richest family.
(via Billionaires Australia)