Billionaires Hit Peak of $10 Trillion as Rich Get Richer Amid COVID

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Close up of USD $100 bills. Credit: IronHeart/Getty Images
October 19, 2020
The world's wealthiest are weathering the coronavirus pandemic with aplomb, according to a report released this month from accounting firm PriceWaterHouseCoopers.
Total billionaire wealth hit $10.2 trillion at the end of July, up from a prior peak of $8.9 trillion in 2017. Over that same period, an additional 31 people achieved billionaire status, bringing the total to 2,189 billionaires.
The report, titled "Riding the Storm," provides one of the most comprehensive cross-sections of the billionaire class, with a look at which industries are creating and sustaining the most billionaires, and what role those billionaires are playing in the global economy.
One insight is that even among billionaires, some are making out better than others as the pandemic shuffles the world economy and drags down some industries while boosting others into new prominence.  

Innovators and Disruptors

The report pays special attention to what it calls "innovators" and "disruptors" — which it defines as billionaire-controlled companies with "disruptive business models, essential technologies and proven emerging technologies" —  who are leading the leap in fortunes. 
"Those that are the innovators and the disruptors, the architects of
creative destruction in the economy, are still increasing their wealth. Other billionaires, on the wrong side of economic, technological, societal and environmental trends are becoming less wealthy," the report said. 
For the moment, technology and health are fueling this increase. 
Between April and July, billionaire wealth in the technology and health sectors grew 41 and 36 percent respectively. Real estate, meanwhile, grew just 12 percent and consumer and retail grew 26 percent.
This contrasts sharply with the prevailing trends of the last decade when an exuberant stock market and steady economic growth benefited all major industries, and in turn, the billionaires they created. Though even before the pandemic, those trend lines had begun to shift.  

Chinese Wealth Rising

Since 2018, billionaires falling under the report's definition of innovators and disruptors grew their wealth 17 percent to $5.3 trillion, compared to traditional billionaires who grew their wealth 6 percent to $3.7 trillion. 
Tech and healthcare billionaires under the disruptor label, such as Hansoh Pharmaceutical CEO Zhong Huijhan, who represents mainland China's burgeoning healthcare industry, powered the recent gains. 
China alone saw a 1,146 percent increase in billionaire wealth between 2009 and 2020, compared to 170 percent in the U.S. 
"Geographically, Mainland China benefited most, as billionaire wealth grew fastest of all in Asia. By early April 2020, there were 389 Chinese
billionaires, worth a total of USD 1.2 trillion. Their wealth had grown by almost nine times, compared with twice in the US," the report said. 
Over that same period, there was also an uptick in people losing their billionaire status, with a 1.7 percent drop in the number of billionaires in both 2018 and 2019, compared to about half that each year for much of the preceding decade. 

Real Estate Stumbles

The lesser gains in real estate wealth in recent years are also notable. Traditionally a preferred asset and source of income for the billionaire class, the sector has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. 
"If the real estate situation looks bad from the outside in, it's actually worse from the inside," a Thai billionaire told PriceWaterHouseCoopers. 
Still, "worse" is a relative term among the world's billionaires. The 64 individuals who were real estate billionaires in 2009 saw their wealth double from $150.4 billion to $303.0 billion over the decade that began memorably began with a devastating housing crisis. 
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