The Power 100 2019
2018 RANKING: 10
PATH TO POWER: Merkel grew up in East Germany, where her father was a Lutheran minister. She took education seriously; she is fluent in Russian and studied quantum chemistry at Karl Marx University (now Leipzig University), earning a PhD in 1986. Yet rather than pursue a career in science, she entered politics when the Berlin Wall fell, first serving as minister for women and youth under German chancellor Helmut Kohl and then as a parliamentarian in the Bundestag, a position she’s held since 1990. She became chancellor in 2005 and has led Europe’s largest economy ever since.
POWER PLAY: Merkel’s time as chancellor, along with her status as the lodestar for liberal democracy in Europe, have entered their twilight years. After her Christian Democratic Union party suffered its worst defeat in 70 years in the 2017 elections—at a time when far-right and populist parties, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment, are on the rise in Germany—she announced in October 2018 that she would not seek another term as chancellor and leave office in 2021. On a personal level, Merkel recently experienced two public episodes in which she was seen physically shaking, leading some to ask if she is suffering from Parkinson’s (she blamed dehydration). Now there are questions about Merkel’s ability to hold together her political coalition and transfer power to a designated successor within her Christian Democratic Union party. Merkel has two more years in office; they look to be hard ones.
2018 RANKING: 08
PATH TO POWER: Yi is an economist with an international bent, having studied at the prestigious Peking University and Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and earning a PhD from the University of Illinois. He taught at Indiana University and Peking until 1997, when he joined the People’s Bank of China, that country’s central bank. Chinese president Xi Jinping appointed him governor of the central bank in March 2018.
POWER PLAY: Yi, an advocate of economic liberalization and close ally of Xi’s, is at the center of the trade war between the United States and China; at a June meeting of G20 finance ministers, Yi and U.S. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin met privately, trying to head off tariffs that neither country really wants. The bank governor has a careful balance to strike: Chinese growth has been easing in recent years, but Yi has been reluctant to spark it with lowered interest rates. On the other hand, he has warned that China has “plenty of room in interest rates” to stimulate the Chinese economy should a trade war with the United States worsen. And Yi is reportedly taking a close look at Chinese lending practices in an attempt to woo more foreign money to the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
2018 RANKING: 04
PATH TO POWER: Fink grew up in Van Nuys, Calif., and graduated from UCLA in 1974. After completing an MBA with a concentration in real estate, also from UCLA, in 1976, he made his way into finance, starting at First Boston, then famously losing his job in 1986 after an interest-rate bet blew up and cost his department $100 million. After a short stint at Blackstone Group, Fink cofounded BlackRock, originally intended to focus on asset management for institutional clients, in 1988. As the firm’s mission evolved and became broader, it grew both organically and through acquisitions. Tasked by the federal government to help clean up the mess of the financial crisis, BlackRock astutely paid $15.2 billion in 2009 to acquire Barclays Global Investors—and, meaningfully, its iShares ETF business. That deal redefined the firm and helped BlackRock become the world’s largest asset manager, now with some $6.52 trillion in AUM.
POWER PLAY: Fink’s annual CEO letter, with its expansive writing about the state of capitalism, has become must-read material on Wall Street and elevated Fink’s status as a global wise man. This year, Fink called for executives to pay greater attention to environmental, social and governmental issues and to see their companies as key players in creating a better world, rather than just generating profit for their shareholders. The letter made a splash. Fink has been faulted for not always being pure, and has been criticized for, among other things, the fact that BlackRock is reportedly the world’s largest investor in coal. (Fink points out that the firm has a fiduciary duty to its clients.) Despite boycotting Saudi Arabia’s investing conference last year in response to the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Fink turned up for the 2019 edition of the event. He wrote of his decision that “corporate leaders should be having a public dialogue about it. Not because everything in Saudi Arabia is perfect—but precisely because everything is not.” The question of how to engage with imperfect systems is never easy; Larry Fink deserves credit for raising it.
2018 RANKING: 09
PATH TO POWER: Born in Amiens, France, to a physician father and professor mother, Macron studied philosophy at university and earned a master’s in public affairs from the prestigious Sciences Po. He started his career in public service as an inspector in the Finance Ministry, then worked in investment banking at Rothschild & Cie. Macron held senior roles in president François Hollande’s administration and was appointed minister of the economy and finance in 2014. A longtime member of the Socialist Party, he became an independent in 2015 before forming his own political movement, En Marche (later an official party called La République En Marche) and formally declaring his intent to run for the presidency in November 2016. In May 2017—at 39—Macron defeated far-right populist Marine Le Pen with 66 percent of the vote and went on to become the youngest head of state since Napoleon.
POWER PLAY: The past year of Macron’s term has been marred by tensions with German chancellor Angela Merkel over the EU’s leadership and the frequent “yellow vest” protests in his home country. Started as a protest against rising fuel costs, the populist movement has come to represent opposition to the rising cost of living generally and to Macron himself—protesters have called for his resignation. His political rival Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party also narrowly beat his own in recent EU elections. But Macron is still a global symbol of European unity and pushes for his legacy to be as the “builder of Europe.” As Merkel nears the end of her term as chancellor (and has announced she has no intention to run again), Macron has increasingly stepped into the role of the EU’s biggest cheerleader on the global stage and the face of progressivism in Europe.
2018 RANKING: 02
PATH TO POWER: Born in 1952, Putin grew up in Leningrad, learned German and martial arts as a child, and studied law at Leningrad State University before entering the fold of the Soviet secret police. He served as a spymaster in East Germany but really came into his own after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as he proved adept at the corrupt political machinations required to rise through the ranks in St. Petersburg and Moscow. As he befriended oligarchs and became wealthy himself, Putin served as chief of staff to Boris Yeltsin and head of the FSB, the institutional heir to the KGB. When Yeltsin made a surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve in 1999, Putin became acting president—and for all intents and purposes has never left. Since then, he’s tightened his grip on domestic politics, gone to war in Chechnya, laid claim to the strategically important Crimean Peninsula and fomented a pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Then, of course, there’s the fact that Russian intelligence apparatus helped tip the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Putin and rejected attempts to secure the 2020 election. A master at hiding money in various global locales, Putin may be the world’s wealthiest person; American financier Bill Browder, a Putin bête noire, estimates the dictator’s total wealth at around $200 billion.
POWER PLAY: While Putin is facing some domestic unrest over a weak economy, it hasn’t stopped his moves on the world stage. (And unrest never seems to get much traction in Putin’s Russia.) In July, a 150-page white paper prepared for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that Russia is beating the United States in the race for global influence, according to Politico. The authors agreed that Putin had three main aims: to reclaim Russian influence over former Soviet nations; to regain global recognition for Russia as a great power; and to portray himself as a regional powerbroker. “The Russian leadership sees itself at war with the U.S. and the West as a whole…a type of ‘war’ that is at odds with the general U.S. understanding of warfare,” the white paper authors argued. And the U.S., they said, is losing.
Though the Russian economy remains relatively small, it has grown significantly in the past two decades, and Putin has applied his country’s financial resources to rebuilding Russia’s military, supporting right-wing political movements in Europe, pushing into the newly melted Arctic, investing in the election of Trump and propping up dictators in places such as Syria, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, he’s talking up stronger relations with China and India in the name of promoting a new world order, one that isn’t dominated by the U.S. “The liberal idea,” Putin told the Financial Times before the recent G20 meeting, has “outlived its purpose.” Putin’s global chaos-making suggests the opposite.
2018 RANKING: 05
PATH TO POWER: Juncker studied law at the University of Strasbourg but never practiced, instead serving as secretary in the parliament of his native Luxembourg. He was elected to the chamber of deputies in 1984 and then served as prime minister from 1995 to 2013. An author of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, Junker became president of the European Commission in 2014.
POWER PLAY: Juncker has become increasingly influential as the European Union has held the line in Brexit negotiations, and he has increasingly voiced opposition to populist leaders both in Europe and abroad, including U.S. president Donald Trump. One manifestation of that: He’s an avid proponent of free trade who has led the EU to sign trade deals with Canada, Japan, Mexico and Singapore. Yet Juncker has said he does not want to serve a second term and will step down in November 2019. Although this means he will theoretically lead the EU through the final Brexit negotiations (assuming the deadline isn’t extended), it will ultimately be someone else’s mess to clean up. German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen is Juncker’s likely successor.
2018 RANKING: 06
PATH TO POWER: Powell grew up in Washington, D.C., attending Georgetown Prep before studying political science at Princeton. A JD from Georgetown, where Powell was editor in chief of the Georgetown Law Journal, followed. He worked in law and finance in New York for 11 years and then joined the U.S. Treasury in 1990. President George H.W. Bush appointed Powell undersecretary for the Treasury for domestic finance in 1992, but Powell returned to private finance—Bankers Trust and Carlyle Group—in 1993. President Obama appointed Powell to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in 2011. In 2017, President Trump nominated Powell for the Fed chairmanship, replacing the well-regarded Janet Yellin, and he won 21 out of 22 votes from the Senate Banking Committee (Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren was the only “no” vote). Since then Powell has established himself as a capable leader of the central bank overseeing the world’s largest economy.
POWER PLAY: Powell’s greatest challenge has been maintaining the independence of the Fed in the face of a president who has argued that the Fed’s role is to support his economic policies and, by extension, his reelection campaign. Trump has repeatedly called for Powell to lower interest rates to turbocharge an already strong economy, and has implied that he might fire Powell for not doing so; perhaps the only thing stopping him is the fact that the markets react negatively every time he goes there. Powell has walked a middle path, hinting at rate cuts if the economy slows and managing to look like he’s not being responsive to the president. “The Fed is insulated from short-term political pressures—what is often referred to as our ‘independence,’” Powell said in a June speech before the Council on Foreign Relations. “Congress chose to insulate the Fed this way because it had seen the damage that often arises when policy bends to short-term political interests.” In other words: Bugger off, Trump. Not long after, Trump announced that he would nominate Judy Shelton, a former campaign advisor and longtime Fed critic, to the Fed board. Even more than monetary policy, preserving the Fed’s independence3 may be Powell’s most important fight.
2018 RANKING: 01
PATH TO POWER: Let’s put judgment aside and state something that, surely, even in this deeply divided moment, we can all agree on: Trump’s rise to the American presidency is really a remarkable, bizarre, impossible-to-predict, only-in-America kind of story. The son of real estate mogul Fred Trump, Donald grew up in Queens but moved his base of operations and investment to Manhattan because, well, that’s what an ambitious young developer would do. The Trump Corporation certainly became more high profile under Donald Trump, but not necessarily more successful, as his risky investments (e.g., an airline), over-paying for property (the Plaza hotel), and lackluster management skills (Atlantic City casinos) forced him into multiple bankruptcies. His reputation, and quite possibly his business, was saved by an unlikely hero, TV impresario Mark Burnett, who recognized in Trump an undeniable telematic genius. Burnett’s reality TV show The Apprentice not only provided Trump a needed income but, for much of America and the world, shaped a reputation for Trump as a master mogul that New Yorkers knew was far from reality. Trump’s newfound stature led to presidential campaigns which even he admitted were primarily about brand-building, including one in 2016 that, Trump supporters have repeatedly acknowledged, Trump never expected to win—not even on election night. But give him credit: Even as Trump has likely diminished American influence abroad, he has made himself the dominant political power at home. The Republican Party—and the country—will never be the same.
POWER PLAY: There’s really just one question about Trump’s financial machinations: Is there a method to his madness, or is it just madness? Consider some examples. He’s lambasted China for its protectionism and theft of intellectual property, issues on which there’s significant bipartisan agreement. But he took the United States out of President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which addressed exactly those concerns, in part by strengthening trading relations with other Asian nations. Now the EU and Russia are filling the vacuum, while Trump is using the far blunter—and, to this point, far less effective—tool of tariffs, which hurt American consumers, farmers and other exporters as much as they do the Chinese and threaten to slow down the entire global economy. He hungers to jettison NAFTA, the agreement which sets guidelines for U.S. trade with Mexico and Canada—and there are plausible arguments that NAFTA needs updating—but aims to replace it with another agreement that is, it turns out, pretty much like NAFTA. He wants to pump up the U.S. economy, but has failed to propose an infrastructure bill that would do exactly that. He ousts one Fed chair, Janet Yellin, in order to install a handpicked substitute, Jerome Powell, then threatens to fire Powell—all moves that make financial markets queasy. (Another paradox: Trump loves to boast about the rising stock market but keeps doing things that send it plummeting.) Meanwhile, he oversees a Republican Party that has abandoned its once fundamental opposition to budget deficits and has gone on a spending spree unlike any in American history. It’s quite possible that, despite Trump’s lust to crank up the American economy, the greatest threat to that economy is Trump himself.
2018 RANKING: 03
PATH TO POWER: Born in 1954, Xi has lived a remarkable life. His father was a Communist Party bureaucrat who was purged from the party and sent to work as a factory laborer, where he was subsequently labeled an enemy of the revolution. Despite a failed attempt to escape the countryside and relocate in Beijing—it resulted in his reassignment as a ditch digger—Xi would ultimately commit to and thrive within the Communist Party. A student of Maoism and chemical engineering at Tsinghua University, he rose through the party ranks and occupied political posts in four regional provinces. Xi was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 and president of China in 2013, meaning he holds the two most powerful positions in the Chinese system simultaneously. In 2018, China’s National People’s Congress overwhelmingly voted to abolish the existing two-term limit on presidential terms, making Xi, in effect, president for life—if he wants it.
POWER PLAY: Xi may be the single most important actor on the world stage, and his rule, while steeped in authoritarianism and military power, has overseen an expansion of China’s financial, diplomatic, military and cultural power. The Chinese have assiduously pushed their Belt and Road Initiative, spending billions on infrastructure projects in developing nations around the world. Much of that is through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up by Xi as a rival to the IMF and the World Bank; the bank has attracted numerous Western member nations despite American concerns that its lending and investment guidelines primarily benefit China. China’s economic behavior, coupled with Donald Trump’s self-professed love of tariffs, has fueled a trade war with the United States that is inflicting real pain on the Chinese economy, but Xi isn’t blinking—he knows that he takes a longer view than the attention-challenged Trump. Perhaps Xi’s most ambitious work is taking place at home. The Chinese government has committed to a massively ambitious plan to end “absolute poverty,” which it defines as income of less than $1 per day, in just three years. The project, which began in 2017, aims to bring 30 million people out of poverty by 2020. A central part of it involves moving the rural poor to cities and giving them vocational training, a task that cost almost $19 billion in 2019 alone, according to the Financial Times. One thing about Xi is consistent: He thinks big.
PATH TO POWER: Born in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1964, Bezos grew up in Houston and studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton. He spent almost a decade at renowned hedge fund firm D.E. Shaw, becoming that firm’s youngest senior vice president, before founding Amazon as an online bookseller in Seattle in 1994. The company, which initially gained notoriety for pioneering e-commerce and disrupting bookstores, has become a dominant force in the American economy, probably the single greatest factor in the much-debated apocalypse of American retailing. Amazon has expanded from books to sell virtually everything while pushing ahead in artificial intelligence, the internet of things, a movie studio, a streaming service and grocery store Whole Foods. Its cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, provides the infrastructure undergirding much of the internet. Amazon has become one of the world’s most valuable companies, and Bezos one of the world’s richest people; even after turning over $38 billion to his now ex-wife MacKenzie this year, Bezos is still worth over $100 billion.
POWER PLAY: Bezos is the individual with the greatest impact on the world’s most powerful economy. At his most mundane, he helps people buy everything from toilet paper to dog food, often with same-day delivery. (And that Bezos has made this feat of technology and logistics seem mundane is itself a huge accomplishment.) At his most ambitious, he wants to help colonize other worlds via his space exploration company, Blue Origin. The past year was an eventful one for Amazon. After a multiyear search that saw cities around the country rush to pull together proposals for countless millions in potential tax credits and subsidies, Amazon announced it would build second headquarters in northern Virginia and New York City (after a flare-up of political protest in New York, Bezos pulled the plug on the site, along with an estimated 25,000 jobs). Less noticed was the fact that Amazon’s self-regulated competition induced cities nationwide to voluntarily hand over reams of economic data of incalculable financial value.
On the horizon is Amazon’s much expected push to disrupt financial services and banking. The company has already partnered with JPMorgan Chase on an Amazon credit card and Amazon Pay, the company’s digital wallet, as well as a reported checking account type of product. Alexa, its AI-based voice assistant, is acquiring the ability to handle retail banking transactions, a project Amazon and UBS have partnered on. Financial industry observers expect that a far bigger move by Amazon into investing and wealth management is imminent.
Indeed, Amazon’s power has become such that Washington lawmakers and regulators are seeking to open a new era of trustbusting to take it on. Critics say that it is quashing competition and distorting the American economy. And reports of grueling working conditions at Amazon facilities persist.
Still, most American consumers are unaware of things Amazon does that they might not like. The things they know of Amazon, however—ease of ordering, low prices, huge selection, easy delivery—those things, we love. Until that changes, Jeff Bezos’ financial power will not.