Anonymous Billionaires

Not everybody is doing badly in the economic crisis. John Paulson, a hedge fund boss, is coining it. He famously took home $3.7 billion in 2007 (personally), after he shorted banking shares, and his funds were up last year and again in the first two months of this year. Whilst the new Forbes rich list shows the number of billionaires plummeting from 1125 to 793 in the past year – down by nearly a third – Mr Paulson has soared from to 368th last year to the 76th richest man in the world.

Has his growing fortune turned Mr Paulson into a philanthrocapitalist, as we would hope? In an interview with The Economist, he said he has given $15m to help families facing foreclosure to keep their homes, by paying for lawyers to exploit the sloppy documentation that accompanied the often-hurried pooling of subprime mortgages into securities. He said he also supports many other causes, but that to talk about them would “take away the altruism”. Really?

Ironically, a billionaire who was once so secretive about his massive giving that he became known as “The Anonymous Donor” has just gone public with the biggest single gift so far this year. Chuck Feeney, who we write about in the book, and whose story is told at length in Conor O’Clery’s terrific biography, “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t”, has pledged $125m to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Feeney, whose Atlantic Philanthropies had already donated $145m to the UCSF Medical Center, has gone public because his gift is contingent on other wealthy donors matching it within five years. They would hardly be likely to come forward if the gift was made secretly – but with the usually reticent Feeney urging on his fellow tycoons, hopefully they will. This is exactly the sort of sacrificial leadership that the rich should be showing to the rest of society in these tough times – and, although giving in secret has its virtues, Feeney’s example of public altruism is one that Paulson and others would do well to follow.