2021 was another good year to be rich.
Every New Year’s Eve, I refresh the numbers for the world’s top 10 richest people and, when applicable, reprise a few familiar talking points.
As the curtain closed on 2021, millions of people globally were being infected with COVID-19 every, single day. The Omicron variant catalyzed a new wave of cases, forcing governments to institute new containment measures or, perhaps more aptly, reinstitute familiar protocols.
The silver lining is that, although highly transmissible, the new strain causes less severe disease. Additionally, the best vaccines still provide good protection against severe illness (assuming you received a booster) and there are oral therapeutics now. Nevertheless, it’s a dark time for humanity.
But not for asset prices, and especially not for equities in developed markets. For some stock benchmarks, times have never been better. And that in part explains why the world’s richest 10 people saw their collective net worth rise by almost $400 billion over the course of 2021.
The figure (below) shows you the breakdown. Elon Musk personally accounted for around a third of the gain, leapfrogging Jeff Bezos in the process.
Warren Buffett rebounded from a rough 2020 to notch a $22 billion increase.
This time last year, I wrote that the benefits of being rich during the pandemic 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. Had things gone even more wrong than they did, there were probably physical bunkers at the ready.
But 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. The same was generally true in 2021, a year during which the world’s benchmark risk asset par excellence, the S&P 500, was propelled by some of the stocks associated with the world’s richest people to 70 record closing highs.
While not everyone on various lists of the world’s richest people 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. Elon Musk is the quintessential example (figure below).
Musk’s net worth has risen by almost a quarter trillion dollars since the onset of the pandemic.
He’s also living proof of the “gods” thesis, outlined on countless occasions in these pages over the past several years.
In late October, when Musk’s net worth ballooned by $36 billion in just a few hours, I wrote that,
Within five years, the Bloomberg Billionaires list won’t make much sense because everyone below the top 25 spots will be relative paupers. Within twenty years, it’s likely that the richest handful of people will own (or control) virtually all of the world’s wealth. Invariably, they’ll be the same 10 people who control virtually all of the world’s data.
Indeed, eight of the top 10 spots on Bloomberg’s list of the world’s wealthiest belong to tech founders, CEOs or former executives.
The takeaway, I remarked, is as simple as it is unnerving. We’re all becoming irrelevant.
That’s the lesson from Musk’s parabolic wealth gains in 2020 and 2021. The figure (below) is impossible to conceptualize. It’s likely just as difficult for Musk to wrap his own mind around it as it is for the rest of us to fathom.
I continue to believe this process is inevitable. I explained why in “Pyramid Scheme.”
Ultimately, the world’s richest 10 people closed out 2021 worth a combined $1.5 trillion.
Over the course of the pandemic, those 10 people saw their net worth increase by a collective $728.6 billion.