The world’s wealthiest people, whose fortunes already strained comprehension, collectively gained $1 trillion last year, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.
Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, alone gained nearly $118 billion in just the last 12 months. Meanwhile, the United Nations estimated 150 million people fell into poverty in 2021.
Other big gainers in the billionaire bunch: Luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault (up $62.7 billion) and Google buddies Larry Page and Sergey Brin (up $47 billion and $45 billion, respectively). Mark Zuckerberg’s year was the stuff of tech titan nightmares, but he’s still about $25 billion richer for it.
As much as 2021 may be remembered as the year of the worker, thanks to rising wages and renewed unionization efforts fueled by a tight labor market, the astronomical gains by the world’s 0.001% underscore the vastness of the wealth gap between workers and the executives and shareholders whom they serve.
For the gazillionth year in a row, 2021 was a good time to be rich. Time and again, Wall Street shrugged off concerns about inflation, supply chain bottlenecks and new Covid-19 variants to keep equity markets humming. On that front, the wealthy owe a big hat tip to the Federal Reserve, which plowed tens of billions of dollars into financial markets every month while keeping interest rates near zero — an ultra-loose monetary policy designed to keep cash moving in financial markets as the pandemic jolted the global economy in 2020. That stimulus effort fueled a stock bonanza in 2020 and 2021, but the Fed gravy train is going away in the first half of this year.
The S&P 500 gained nearly 27% last year, while the Dow gained about 19% and the Nasdaq ended the year up 21%.
Valuations on other assets such as cryptocurrencies, commodities and property also soared, further bolstering the uber-wealthy’s coffers.
According to Bloomberg, the combined net worths of the 500 people in its billionaire index now exceeds $8.4 trillion. That’s more than the gross domestic product of any single country on the planet except the United States and China.
Throughout the year, American lawmakers’ proposals for a so-called billionaire tax were derided, rather unsurprisingly, by superbillionaires such as Musk. The Tesla CEO, who in recent years has paid little or no income tax and whose now-trillion-dollar car company was partly built on government aid, has been especially vocal in opposing a tax on the uber-wealthy to fund a more robust social safety net in America.
Since the pandemic began, America’s billionaires have seen their collective fortunes soar more than 70% to more than $5 trillion, according to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality, which analyzed Forbes data.
Democrats argue that billionaires’ windfall alone over the past two years would be enough to pay for President Joe Biden’s social infrastructure plan. But the billionaire tax legislation was dead on arrival this fall when Senator Joe Manchin voiced concerns about penalizing “people in the stratosphere.”