Monday, November 3, 2014

9 fascinating facts about the 400 richest Americans

9 fascinating facts about the 400 richest Americans

Every year, Forbes magazine releases a list of the 400 richest Americans and today saw the release of a new edition. Their rankings aren't official or necessarily 100 percent accurate, but it is pretty much the best source that exists in the world for information about America's hyper-wealthy. These days, the subject of the rankings are no mere curiosity — growing inequality means that moves at the tippy-top of the wealth spectrum have some real meaning for American society. Here are nine key facts learned from the new release.

1) The 400 wealthiest Americans control $2.29 trillion in wealth

Gotta support the team (Eric Francis/Getty)
Gotta support the team (Eric Francis/Getty)
This should probably be considered a low bound estimate. As Gabriel Zucman and other researchers have found, the use of tax shelters by hyper-wealthy individuals naturally leads to undercounting of their wealth by government and media sources. Some individuals' financial holdings are fairly transparent (comprised overwhelmingly of shares of stock in a company they founded) but beneficiaries of inherited wealth or simply people who've been wealthy for a long time tend to have murkier asset allocations. The total wealth of the very wealthy is about 2.8 percent of all wealth in America which might sound small but 400 people is less than 0.00013 percent of the entire population.

2) That's a $270 billion increase from last year

Stock market stroll (Spencer Platt/Getty)
Stock market stroll (Spencer Platt/Getty)
Very wealthy people tend to own many shares of stock, so the wealth of the very rich has recovered sharply from the recession and reached a new all-time high even as average incomes stagnate.

3) Of the previous year's 400 richest Americans, only 36 saw their net wealth fall

Buying yachts is consumption, not wealth (Eric Molina)
Buying yachts is consumption, not wealth (Eric Molina)
"A rising tide lifts all boats" is false of the economy as a whole, but generally true of billionaires. Once you amass a large diversified pool of financial assets, it doesn't require any particular skill or judgment to see its value continue to grow any time global stock markets generally rise.

4) The average net worth of the Forbes 400 is a record $5.7 billion, an increase of $700 million from last year.

Stanley Kroenke (Michael Regan/Getty)
Stanley Kroenke (Michael Regan/Getty)
That's a bit slower than the 14 percent average increase across the entire American population. America's most average billionaire is Stanley Kroenke, whose $5.7 billion in assets include large ownership stakes in Arsenal, St Louis Rams, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, and other pro sports teams.

5) You need $1.55 billion to make the cut, up from $1.3 billion last year

This isn't enough (Refracted Moments)
This isn't enough (Refracted Moments)
This is an all-time high in nominal terms, and the rate of increase of over 20 percent is much faster than the underlying rate of inflation.

6) At least 113 US billionaires were too poor to make the list

The world's smallest violin (Reservoir Dogs)
Probably time for Forbes to consider switching to a Forbes 500 list to leave no billionaire uncounted.

7) Bill Gates is the richest American for the 21st straight year

I don't even check this list anymore (Scott Olson/Getty)
I don't even check this list anymore (Scott Olson/Getty)
Gates seems like a genuinely good person who is dedicating most of his financial wealth to useful charitable endeavors. Nonetheless, the fact that he's had a generation-long run at the top spot (and shows no sign of losing it) tells us something about social mobility and economic dynamism. That this wealth is deeply entangled with government-created copyright and patent monopolies is also telling..

8) Mark Zuckerberg's wealth rose $15 billion last year, the biggest increase

Good news, we're even richer! (Scott Olson/Getty)
Good news, we're even richer! (Scott Olson/Getty)
Facebook is very popular, which you have probably noticed.

9) Nick Woodman, founder of GoPro, was the biggest percentage gainer at 200%

GoPro makes cool cameras that let you make high-quality digital recordings in unusual situations at prices that, while high, are incredibly affordable compared to traditional film. Here's POV footage of a golden eagle in Mongolia:

How does income inequality relate to wealth inequality?

Income is the flow of money that you receive. For most people it's your wages or salary. For some people, there might be dividends, interest payments, or rent thrown in. Wealth is how many financial assets you have stockpiled. The equity in your home, your bank account, your retirement account, or other stocks and bonds you may have accumulated.
As this chart from Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman shows, wealth is distributed very unequally. Much more unequally than income.
There are two main reasons for this.
One is that the bottom quarter or so of the population has zero or negative net wealth, due to student loans, underwater mortgages, credit card debt, auto loans, or other debt instruments. Nobody has negative income and very few people have zero income when government benefits are factored in.
The other is that wealth leads to income. A billionaire who owns tons of stock is going to earn substantial dividends from his stock holdings. Some of that income will be saved, and turn into further wealth. This tends to put the wealth of the wealthiest on an upward trajectory unless something like a war or a depression or a massive political intervention interferes.

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