2020 was a good year to be rich.
I mean, every year is a good year to be rich in many respects, although being rich doesn’t guarantee you’re going to a have a “good” year, depending on your definition of “good.”
But 2020, a year during which more than 1.8 million people around the globe lost their lives to a virus, was an especially fortuitous time for the world’s richest people, financially speaking at least.
It goes without saying that the richer you are, the better insulated you’re likely to be from catastrophes, notwithstanding comorbidities that may place you among the biologically vulnerable during something like a pandemic. (Everyone is familiar with the clichéd Hollywood apocalypse blockbuster, wherein the rich and powerful have bunkers in New Zealand or some such sanctuary that helps them evade whatever fate is set to befall the rest of humanity.)
But in 2020, the benefits of being rich in a disaster went beyond the obvious. It was, of course, true that the rich didn’t have to worry about running out of money as the global economy shut down. Relatedly, they weren’t forced to risk contracting a deadly disease by the necessity of punching a clock at, say, a Walmart or a poultry plant. And, yes, had things gone even more wrong than they did, there were probably physical bunkers at the ready.
But as the chart above shows, with few exceptions, the rich also benefited in 2020 from surging asset prices catalyzed in part by a combination of the policy response to the pandemic and the nature of the businesses founded and/or owned by the world’s richest people.
While not everyone represented in the chart is a tech mogul (billionaires aren’t a monolith, so to speak), many of them witnessed unfathomable paper gains due in large part to the appreciation of financial asset prices. Specifically, the top 20 people on the Bloomberg billionaires list added a combined $555 billion to their collective net worth in 2020. Just five of them (including, amusingly, Warren Buffett) saw their net worth decline.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: That’s egregious — just 20 people made more than a half-trillion during the worst year of many people’s lives.
But there’s a silver lining. Poor Americans had a banner second and third quarter! Through September 30, their net worth increased by almost $359 billion.
Because the data on the 20 richest people is current through December 30, while the data used for the visual above doesn’t capture the fourth quarter, it’s at least possible that the poorest Americans almost closed the gap in the year’s final three months.
The only problem: The top 20 richest people in the world is a group that, by definition, includes just 20 people.
The number of people represented by the second figure is 165 million.