Elon Musk’s wealth soared to levels only ever achieved by John D. Rockefeller. Bill Hwang lost US$20 billion in days, Bill Gates -- once the world’s richest man -- divorced under a Jeffrey Epstein cloud.
For the wealthiest people on the planet, 2021 was a year of enormous gains, extreme losses and unprecedented scrutiny.
Mostly, it was a good time to be a multibillionaire. Soaring equity markets and rising valuations of everything from mansions to crypto to commodities boosted the collective fortune of the world’s 500 richest people by more than US$1 trillion even as the COVID-19 pandemic roiled the globe for a second year.
The gains mean there are now a record 10 fortunes in excess of US$100 billion, more than 200 above US$10 billion and Musk reached the level of riches, inflation-adjusted, achieved by modern history’s wealthiest person. The combined net worths on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now exceeds US$8.4 trillion, more than the GDP of all countries except the U.S. and China.
The enormous fortunes amassed by the 0.001 per cent also underscored how the uneven recovery from the economic shock of COVID-19 has become more entrenched. As the very richest benefited from bumper markets and loose fiscal policy, the pandemic pushed as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty, according to World Bank estimates, a number that stands to increase if inflation continues to rise.
“Since the mid-1990s, the share of wealth held by the global richest .01 per cent has risen from around 7 per cent to 11 per cent,” said Lucas Chancel, co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics. “The crisis did not reverse this trend. It slightly amplified it.”
From Washington to Moscow to Beijing, lawmakers ratcheted up rhetoric around the ultra-affluent, vowing to hike taxes and close loopholes in response to public pressure and drained budgets. In October U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden unveiled a proposed levy specifically aimed at 10-digit fortunes.
The billionaires tax though quickly drew scorn from the likes of Musk, and disappeared within days. An earlier proposal pitched by President Joe Biden to raise taxes on inheritances and almost double those on capital gains, a prime source of income for many billionaires, also withered. Senator Joe Manchin’s objection to the Build Back Better plan could rule out higher taxes of any kind for the rich in the near future.
It was a different story in China. The country’s financial elite had their worst year since Bloomberg began tracking wealth in 2012, losing US$61 billion as Beijing attacked big tech and promoted “common prosperity.” Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Jack Ma disappeared from the public stage and real estate moguls shed US$35 billion amid a spiraling debt crunch that’s drawn a crackdown from regulators.
No one embodies the squeeze better than China Evergrande Group’s Hui Ka Yan. Once China’s second-richest person, Hui’s net worth fell by US$17 billion this year as his real estate empire slumped under a crushing debt load. The government urged him to use his personal wealth --including, among other toys, a megayacht -- to help repay investors.
Among the richest sources of new wealth this year were less tangible assets: digital assets, shares of newly listed tech stocks and SPACs.
The gyrating value of digital coins added then erased billions for crypto evangelist Mike Novogratz, while a record number of initial public offerings lifted the paper wealth of founders like Brian Armstrong of crypto-trading platform Coinbase and Brazilian fintech CEO David Velez.
Former President Donald Trump, who left office significantly less wealthy than when he entered the White House, could make billions of dollars if his nascent media company can complete its merger with a blank-check company.
At year-end, 42 members of the Bloomberg index debuted on the ranking in 2021, mostly due to IPOs.
Overall, it was a year of big swings and massive payouts. With valuations soaring and growing wariness over potential tax hikes, many billionaires seized the moment to sell. A low-profile Chicago clan, struck a US$32 billion deal with private equity for their medical-goods supplier, possibly the biggest liquidity event in history for a single family.
America’s richest billionaires unloaded US$43 billion in stock through the start of December, more than double the US$20 billion they sold in all of 2020.
Fortunes were reshaped in other ways. Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce meant the Microsoft Corp. co-founder ceded assets, while securing Melinda French Gates’s own spot on the index, where she’s ranked 194th. MacKenzie Scott set records for philanthropy, while her ex-husband Jeff Bezos amped up his giving to environmental causes after stepping down as CEO of Amazon.com Inc.
Alongside the stratospheric monetary gains there were implosions. In March, former hedge fund manager, Bill Hwang, shot from obscurity to infamy in the blink of an eye when his family office, Archegos Capital Management, collapsed under the weight of soured leveraged bets, vaporizing a US$20 billion fortune.
At the center of it all -- the market volatility, whipsawing crypto, the tax discourse, the selling, the record-smashing wealth gains -- was Musk. The revered and reviled entrepreneur sailed to the top of the index in January and remained atop most of the year, thanks to Tesla Inc.’s ascendant stock price and consistent profit growth, and the rising value of SpaceX.
The electric automaker’s climb was so steep, it vaulted its third-largest shareholder, Leo KoGuan, a low-profile retail trader and professed Musk superfan, onto the index with a US$10.8 billion fortune.
One constant throughout the year was the world’s richest person’s often-sophomoric tweets. Taunting regulators, riffing on cryptocurrencies or pondering the obligations, tax and otherwise, of the super wealthy. Musk’s social media feed frequently reflected the conflicted relationship between mega-billionaires and everyone else in a volatile, increasingly unequal time.