Oxfam International, a poverty fighting organization, made news at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year with its report that the world’s 85 richest people own assets with the same value as those owned by the poorer half of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people (including children). Both groups have $US 1.7 trillion. That’s $20 billion on average if you are in the first group, and $486 if you are in the second group.
Oxfam’s calculations of the richest individuals are based on the 2013 Forbes Billionaires list. I decided to take a closer look at this group of 85 in search of trends. That’s when I realized that they are by now a much wealthier group. The rich got richer. And it was quite fast and dramatic. For example, while last year it took $23 billion to be in the top 20 of the world’s billionaires, this year it took $31 billion, according to Luisa Kroll, Forbes wealth editor, writing on Forbes.com.
As a result, by the time Forbes published its 2014 Billionaires List in early March, it took only 67 of the richest peoples’ wealth to match the poorer half of the world. (For the purpose of this blog, I will put aside the conversation about the importance of income inequality versus impoverishment. This has recently been skewing strongly toward recognition of the importance of income distribution and its inequality, most recently with the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.)
Each of the 67 is on average worth the same as 52 million people from the bottom of the world’s wealth pyramid. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, with a net worth of $76 billion, is worth the same as 156 million people from the bottom.
Who are the 67? The biggest group—28 billionaires, or 42% of them—is from the United States. No other country comes close. Germany and Russia have the second-highest number, with six each. The rest are sprinkled among 13 countries in Western Europe, APAC and the Americas.
That the biggest group of the super rich comes from the U.S. should not be a surprise, as the country holds almost a third of the world’s wealth (30%), significantly more than any other country, according to the Global Wealth Databook, from Credit Suisse Research Institute. However, Europe, with a slightly bigger chunk of the world’s wealth (32%), produced substantially fewer of the richest. That is due to less dynamic economies, which do not equal the U.S. in how they foster innovation, on which many of the newest U.S. fortunes are based.
When comparing the ratio of the richest to the percentage of the world’s wealth held by each country, it is Russia that comes out the most lopsided, with its holdings skewed to the super rich. As a country, Russia holds only half a percent of the world’s wealth, and yet it has 9% of the 67 richest.
The 67 fortunes come from three main industries: technology (12), retail (12) and natural resources-based sectors such as oil and gas, mining and steel. The geographical split by industry illustrates the state and progression of the various economies. Almost all technology fortunes are recent and from the U.S. Retail is dominated by second- or third-generation Western Europeans. The majority of the rich whose money comes from natural resources are from emerging markets, with most of them from Russia.
The majority of the 67—40, or 60%, to be precise—are self-made. This rarified group of people thus shows that there is wealth mobility over time in the highest echelons, among both individuals and countries. Had there been less global mobility, the majority of the richest would necessarily have inherited wealth and come from the countries with the oldest fortunes, which are in Western Europe. Already back in the late 1980s, when Forbes first started to compile its Billionaires list, Western Europe stood apart from the rest of the world, with the majority of its fortunes inherited. That did not provide a long-term edge. Today, just 13 of the 67 come from Western Europe.
Of course, part of the reason behind the high number of self-made fortunes of the 67 lies in economic upheavals, such as the fall of communism or the opening of countries like India, which has allowed for the creation of huge new fortunes over the last couple of decades. And while they are self-made in the sense that they have not been inherited from family members, at least some of them are based on privatizations of formerly state-owned assets, making them the inheritors of their peoples’ wealth.
There will be more mobility among the richest individuals if more of the world’s richest give away their money to philanthropy, expecting future generations to start anew. Out of the 67, eight have signed a giving pledge, promising to leave the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. All but one, Indian billionaire Azim Premji, are from the U.S. That amount pledged to charity comes to at least $150 billion, assuming half of their fortunes are given away. That means that these eight people have pledged to give to philanthropy what some 309 million people (average members of the group of 3.5 billion poorest) today have. Presumably, this philanthropy, which has been increasingly systemic—meaning that it aims to create long-term change instead of alleviating immediate needs—will in the long run help more than 300 million people.
Turning fortunes over to philanthropy will also drastically change the makeup of the richest, making room for more of the self-made. It has to be noted, however, that not every region of the world is on the same wavelength in this respect, with family legacy in business especially important in Europe.
Late breaking: Forbes has just announced it is updating its Billionaires rankings in real time now. The latest counts show that over the last month the number of billionaires whose net worth equals that of the 3.5 billion poorest people has fallen to 66.