Sunday 26 May 2019

2018 was a bad year for billionaires

According to the Wealth-X Billionaire census the number of billionaires world-wide declined by 5.4% to 2,604 during 2018, and their total wealth also declined by 7% to $8.6 trillion last year.

The Pacific region, which includes Australia, did worse than average, with the number of billionaires declining by 6.3% (to 30) and their wealth declining by a massive 14% (to $64 billion) during 2018.

Overall, billionaires account for only 1% of all Ultra-High Net Worth (UHNW) individuals (defined as those with $30 million in net worth). However, they accounted for 28% of UHNW total wealth.

One interesting aspect of this is that 'wealth distribution' is actually a lot more 'equitable' amongst UHNW individuals than, for example, wealth distribution globally (where the top 1% of global population have at least 50% of the total wealth). Of course, this is largely due to the fact that no UHNW have a negative net worth, whereas the global population includes many people with negative net wealth (are in debt), or zero net wealth.

Australia is under-performing in terms of how many billionaires we have - our GDP ranks 13th, but we are not in the top 15 countries in terms of number of billionaires. This may of course reflect the much cherished belief that Australia is a more 'egalitarian' society than many other countries.

While not many people will feel much sympathy for billionaires having a tough 2018, it will have some adverse 'trickle down' effects - after all, the most popular hobby amongst billionaires is philanthropy, with over 50% known to be actively involved in philanthropic giving - often via educational grants, scholarships are so on. A recent example was Robert Smith paying off all student loans for the class of 2019 graduating from his Alma Mater (as is often the case when rich people engage in charitable giving, this immediately resulted in some criticism - the Washington Post wrote a piece questioning whether this act of charity was fair on those students (or their parents) that had saved and paid for their education without going into debt). Another recent example was the immediate, large donations of several French billionaires towards the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral after the recent fire. This, too, was promptly criticised - some on the basis that it was an example of Western privilege (i.e. it was easy to raise donations to restore a Western cultural icon, yet little had been raised to restore the damage done to Palmyra done by ISIS), and others simply objected on the basis that the generous donations provided another example that billionaires have more money than they need, or 'deserve'.

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