A small fortune, on a relative scale

Retired Wall Street kingpin Bruce Lisman, the Millionaire Who Would Be Governor, released his financials on Monday. Interesting, because (a) candidates usually release financials after Tax Day, so their most recent tax returns are included, and (b) it’s Christmas Week, when relatively few are paying attention. Kind of a newsdump, in other words.

The topline? Lisman’s net worth is $50.9 million.

Sounds like a lot. But my first thought was: I expected more.

After all, this is a guy who was in the top ranks of Bear Stearns, a very lucrative Wall Street firm. Well, it was “very lucrative” until it melted down into a small puddle of goo in the 2008 financial crisis.

And after all, this is a guy who in 2009 sold his Manhattan residence — a four-bedroom pad overlooking Central Park, not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — for almost $13 million. And his current manse in Shelburne is worth just under $6 million. With real estate exposure like that, I’d have expected a higher net worth.

There are possible explanations.

Maybe he was in a relative backwater of Bear Stearns and didn’t earn the unconscionable salaries common among the elite.

Or he may have taken a big hit in the 2008 crash. Say, if a chunk of his net worth was tied up in Bear Stearns stock options, hahaha.

Maybe he got hit hard in a divorce settlement or something.

Whatever, there’s one other big takeaway from Lisman’s financial statement. Which is this:

It’s easy to make a lot of money if you start out with a whole lot of money. Or, to put it another way, if you have enough money it’s almost impossible to go broke. Unless you’re really, really stupid.

Look: Lisman’s 2014 income was $1.67 million. The vast majority was return on investments. Of his net worth, he had $19 million in brokerage accounts. In other words, he handed his millions over to his brokers and it grew in dimensions that us working stiffs can only dream about.

Which is interesting to me, because of something Lisman said in a 2010 talk co-sponsored by our friends at the Ethan Allen Institute. A talk that predated his putatively centrist work on Campaign for Vermont, and that was chock full of talking points from the playbook of wealth-minded conservatism.

Here’s what he had to say about how people who invest should be rewarded for their pains:

Any opportunity to lower taxes should go to capital gains and corporate taxes, not to individuals. The most precious thing in the galaxy is capital at risk. In exchange for risking their capital, they ought to be rewarded for that.

Yes, the poor beleaguered investor class, selflessly “risking” their hard-earned fortunes, need to be rewarded for putting their “capital at risk.”

But the lesson to be gleaned from the Lisman financials is that for the vast majority of the investor class, there is no risk. Or, to put it more accurately, they’re not risking anything that would imperil their financial security. If you invest enough, diversify properly, and wisely choose your brokers, you will prosper. It’s virtually automatic.

You want capital at risk? Look at a working family that can’t afford quality health insurance, or is constantly worried about layoffs and outsourcing. Look at a family desperately trying to pay down college loans while, at the same time, trying to save for their children’s educations and their own retirement. That, Mr. Lisman, is capital at risk.

So I won’t pity poor Lisman for his “measly” $50.9 million. We’ve all got our crosses to bear. It’s just that his cross is gold-plated. And he can hire people to do the bearing.

6 thoughts on “A small fortune, on a relative scale

  1. Cynthia Browning

    I think it would have been interesting to see what he paid in state and federal taxes — maybe that will come later, but without that this release seems incomplete to me, given that inequality and tax burdens are such a hot topic at all levels. … Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      His tax bills were noted in media reports — Neal Goswami at the Vermont Press Bureau or Terri Hallenbeck at Seven Days have good stories. He actually paid a decent amount in taxes. His charitable giving seems a bit weak, but that doesn’t include his “generosity” in self-funding Campaign for Vermont to the tune of $1 million-plus.

  2. Brooke Paige

    Compared to most of the “class of wealth”, Bruce Lisman is not nearly as offensive as the likes of Trump, the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers and the hundreds of “trust fund” families who have had it all dropped in their laps – their good fortune is little more that a accident tangential to their birth. You can tax these folks at 90% if you choose – hell, why not 100% and force them to actually go out and find out what work is ? On the other hand folks like Lisman, and Scott for that matter, come from modest beginnings and have had to work long hours doing tedious tasks to achieve success – they deserve to keep a significant portion of what they earn. As to the “capital at risk” issue, I am constantly reminded of what my economics professor, Dr. “Mike” (Dr. Herman E. Michl) constantly railed against – that “income” is money that comes from money and should be taxed as necessary to facilitate the essentials of government. “Earnings” money that comes from hard work and “sweat of the brow” is not “income” at all, rather an equal exchange of efforts for goods (and services) and therefore there is no income to be taxed. More simply stated taxing labor (a paycheck) is little more that incremental slavery, varied at the will of the government taskmasters (tax-masters).

  3. kevin ellis

    What is most startling for me is the paltry charitable giving amount – less than $200k on an income like that. He could change the lives of so many people if he was more aggressive with his philanthropy. It is a huge lost opportunity for Bruce and Vermont.

  4. walter carpenter

    “On the other hand folks like Lisman, and Scott for that matter, come from modest beginnings and have had to work long hours doing tedious tasks to achieve success ” I am sure that luck was also involved in this as many others work extremely” long hours doing tedious tasks to achieve success” and get just up another dead end.

  5. Monserrate

    My tax guy told me: When it comes to Life Insurance, purchase
    it when you are young. Typically, a younger person is
    in good general health, so you will be able to lock in a great
    rate for the length of the policy. As a person gets
    older, they start to present more of a risk to an insurance company, and not only will the premium
    be more but, you may be denied coverage entirely.


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