Wealthiest Americans see their net worth bounce back sharply © Roy McMahon/Corbis

Extra8/3/2010 7:00 PM ET

Why are the rich still whining?

While most Americans continue coping with diminished expectations, the wealthiest have seen their net worth bounce back sharply. Yet they keep complaining.

By Brett Arends, MarketWatch

You may have been hearing a lot of doom and gloom about the economy.

OK, so the news on jobs, real estate and retail sales has been dismal. Yes, maybe the middle class is broke, in debt, "underwater," out of work and in despair.

But look on the bright side: One group of people is doing just fine. The rich.

The New York Times recently tried to find signs they were easing up -- maybe somebody put a new Ferrari on hold because of the European debt crisis. But any such suggestion should be viewed in context.

Tiffany (TIF, news, msgs) says sales at its flagship New York store jumped 26% in the first quarter. International luxury goods giant Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMHF, news, msgs), whose brands include Fendi, Givenchy and Moët & Chandon, says U.S. sales boomed 20% in the first quarter, including a remarkable 58% boost for sales of jewelry and expensive watches like Tag Heuer.

Indeed, the Swiss watch federation says exports of luxury watches (those $2,000 "timepieces") to the United States rose 12% in May, putting them ahead 9% for the year. Superluxury goods purveyor Richemont, the owner of such brands as Cartier, Dunhill and Van Cleef & Arpels, also says U.S. sales are up.

Ultrarich are spending big

The Sunseeker Club, a New York dealership that is America's biggest seller of multimillion-dollar British luxury power boats, reports that business is strong again. Those who have the money to spend, it says, are spending it.

At times like these, cash buyers are king.

These are not isolated incidents. According to consulting company Cap Gemini, the wealthy saw their net worth bounce back sharply last year. And while those with $1 million or more did pretty well, the real story was the boom among the ultrarich -- those with more than $30 million to invest.

"Ultra-HNWIs (high net worth individuals) increased their wealth by a striking 21.5% in 2009, far more than the average in the HNWI segment as a whole," Cap Gemini reported. "A disproportionate amount of wealth remained concentrated in the hands of Ultra-HNWIs."

There are fewer than 100,000 "ultras" around the world. A third of those are in the United States. Ultras make up 1% of the high net worth, according to Cap Gemini, but they held 36% of the high net worth's wealth.

Plenty of griping

Talk to any rich people, and they won't tell you they're doing well. They're more likely to complain. After all, taxes are going up. And there's that "socialist" in the White House who is spending us to wrack and ruin.

Are they right?

The rich are always complaining. Back in Edwardian England, the aristocrats moaned about the servants.

Sure, the top tax rate is expected to rise at the end of this year, when George W. Bush's tax cuts are due to expire. But that will take the rate up only a bit, to the level seen in the late 1990s. You remember how tough things were for the elite back then.

And who pays the top tax rate anyway?

Right now it kicks in on each dollar of ordinary income over $374,000 a year. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office indicated that the top 1% of Americans paid an average federal income tax rate of just 19% in 2007, the most recent year for which data were available. The top 5% of earners paid an average rate of less than 18%. There are ways and means to minimize tax, such as calling your income "capital gains." That's what private-equity honchos do whenever possible.

In many cases, it means people making tens of millions a year are paying lower tax rates than their chauffeurs and receptionists. (There are proposals to change that, with predictable screaming.)

As for socialism: The Federal Reserve reports that the private sector is doing so badly that corporate profits just, um, rocketed to a record high. The after-tax profits of corporate America shot up 43% in the first quarter.

Continued: Tax savings to die for 

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