Where's the economy going? We queried a few members of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans to get their thoughts on a range of topics, from unemployment and the price of oil to financial regulation and fiscal policy.
Twelve billionaires answered our 10-question survey and nearly all believe the economy will return to positive growth sometime in the fourth quarter of 2009 or the first quarter of 2010.
Asked about the most alarming trend facing the economy, many believe it is fear. "The entire economy has lost confidence in its jump shot," said Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of pro-basketball's Dallas Mavericks. "As a result, money will sit on the sidelines longer than we would like, and when it is put to work, it will be in very conservative instruments."
Cuban was worth $2.6 billion US as of September 2008, when The Forbes 400 was published. He was recently indicted by the SEC on insider trading charges. He denies any wrongdoing.
Other alarming trends the very rich are concerned about: lack of credit and the recent spate of federal government bailouts. Because of government action, the deck is becoming more and more stacked in favor of the large incumbents, thereby creating more inhibition to potential innovators," said pharmaceutical tycoon R.J. Kirk, who was worth $1.6 billion in September.
As Dr. Thomas Frist Jr., co-founder of hospital operator HCA Healthcare, put it: "Fed bailouts. Where do they stop?"
Overall, American billionaires were either extremely bullish or highly bearish; no one was in the middle. Billionaires who made their fortunes in finance and real estate were far more pessimistic than those who derived their riches from other sectors.
When asked to predict the levels of unemployment in 2009, answers ranged from seven per cent to more than 10 per cent. The bulls believed the Dow Jones Industrial Average has already bottomed out, while the bears predict the market can still fall to 6,500.
Members of the Forbes 400 had strong opinions on what the Obama administration's first fiscal policy decision should be. Cuban said "transparency of any and all government funding" should be the new president's top priority.
Real estate tycoon Leon Charney said the Obama administration's focus should be on Detroit. "Finding the way to combat the automobile crisis without Federal Reserve intervention" is the first issue the new Treasury Department should tackle, he said. Attitudes toward philanthropy were mixed. Some American billionaires said the faltering economy has encouraged them to give even more, while others are prioritizing their charitable gifts to social needs rather than cultural organizations.
Real estate and media maven Mort Zuckerman, who recently told CNBC his charitable trust lost $30 million in Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme, says his approach to philanthropy has not changed despite losing more than 10 per cent of the assets in his charity.
Almost all of the tycoons admit their fortunes have been severely damaged in recent months. Most said the price of admission to be ranked on the Forbes 400 in 2009 will be $1 billion or less, down from $1.3 billion in 2008.
Washington D.C.-area real estate developer Ted Lerner, 83, would rather skip 2009 altogether: "While at my age time is very important, I would gladly exchange December 2008 for December 2009 right now."