Elon Musk’s wealth soared to levels only ever achieved by John D Rockefeller. Bill Hwang lost $20 billion in days, Bill Gates – once the world’s richest man – divorced and split his fortune with former wife Melinda French Gates.
For the wealthiest people on the planet, 2021 was a year of enormous gains, extreme losses and unprecedented scrutiny.
Mostly, it was a good time to be a multibillionaire. Soaring equity markets and rising valuations of everything – from mansions to cryptocurrencies to commodities – boosted the collective fortune of the 500 richest people by more than $1 trillion even as the COVID-19 pandemic left the world reeling for a second year.
The gains mean there are now a record 10 fortunes in excess of $100 billion, more than 200 above $10 billion and Musk reached the level of riches, inflation-adjusted, achieved by modern history’s wealthiest person.
The combined fortunes on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now exceed $8.4 trillion, more than the gross domestic product of all countries except the US and China.
Musk ended 2021 with a personal fortune of $273.5 billion, followed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the world’s second wealthiest person with $194.2 billion and LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault with $177.1 billion. Rounding off the top five was Gates with $138.3 billionand Google co-founder Larry Page on $129.5 billion.
The enormous fortunes amassed by the 0.001 per cent also underscored how the uneven recovery from the economic shock of COVID-19 has become more entrenched.
As the very richest benefited from bumper markets and loose fiscal policy, the pandemic pushed as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty, according to World Bank estimates, a number that stands to increase if inflation continues to rise.
“Since the mid-1990s, the share of wealth held by the global richest 0.01 per cent has risen from around 7 per cent to 11 per cent,” said Lucas Chancel, co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics. “The crisis did not reverse this trend. It slightly amplified it.”
From Washington to Moscow to Beijing, politicians ratcheted up rhetoric around the ultra-affluent, vowing to raise taxes and close loopholes in response to public pressure and drained budgets.
In October, US Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden unveiled a proposed levy specifically aimed at 10-digit fortunes.
The billionaires tax, however, quickly drew scorn from the people such as Mr Musk and disappeared within days. An earlier proposal pitched by US President Joe Biden to raise taxes on inheritances and almost double those on capital gains, a prime source of income for many billionaires, also withered.
US Senator Joe Manchin’s objection to the Build Back Better plan could rule out higher taxes of any kind for the rich in the near future.
However, on December 20, Musk tweeted that he would pay more than $11 billion in taxes for 2021. The bill comes after Musk exercised about 15 million options and sold millions of shares to cover the taxes related to those transactions.
It was a different story in China. The country’s financial elite had their worst year since Bloomberg began tracking wealth in 2012, losing $61 billion as Beijing clamped down on Big Tech and promoted “common prosperity”. Alibaba Group Holding’s Jack Ma disappeared from the public stage and property moguls shed $35 billion amid a spiralling debt crunch.
No one embodies the squeeze better than China Evergrande Group’s Hui Ka Yan. Once China’s second-richest person, Mr Hui’s net worth fell $17 billion this year as his property empire slumped under a crushing debt load. The government urged him to use his personal wealth – including a mega-yacht – to help to repay investors.
Among the richest sources of new wealth in 2021 were less tangible assets: digital assets, shares of newly listed technology stocks and special purpose acquisition companies (Spacs).
The gyrating value of digital coins added then erased billions for cryptocurrency influencer Mike Novogratz, while a record number of initial public offerings lifted the paper wealth of founders such as Brian Armstrong of crypto-trading platform Coinbase and Brazilian FinTech chief executive David Velez.
Former US president Donald Trump, who left office significantly less wealthy than when he entered the White House, could make billions of dollars if his nascent media company can complete its Spac merger with a blank-cheque company.
At the end of the year, 42 members of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index made their debut on the ranking in 2021, mostly due to IPOs.
Overall, it was a year of big swings and massive payouts. With valuations soaring and growing wariness over potential tax increases, many billionaires seized the moment to sell.
A low-profile Chicago clan struck a $32 billion deal with private equity for their medical goods supplier, possibly the biggest liquidity event in history for a single family.
America’s richest billionaires unloaded $43 billion in stock through the start of December, more than double the $20 billion they sold in all of 2020.
Fortunes were reshaped in other ways. The Gates’s divorce meant the Microsoft co-founder ceded assets, while securing French Gates’s own spot on the index, where she is ranked 194th.
MacKenzie Scott set records for philanthropy while her former husband, Bezos, amped up his giving to environmental causes after stepping down as chief executive of Amazon.
Alongside the stratospheric monetary gains, there were implosions. In March, former hedge fund manager Bill Hwang shot from obscurity to infamy in the blink of an eye when his family office, Archegos Capital Management, collapsed under the weight of soured leveraged bets, vaporising a $20 billion fortune.
At the centre of it all – the market volatility, whipsawing cryptocurrencies, the tax discourse, the selling, the record-smashing wealth gains – was Musk. The revered and reviled entrepreneur sailed to the top of the index in January and remained on top most of the year, thanks to Tesla’s ascendant stock price, consistent profit growth and the rising value of SpaceX.
The electric car maker’s climb was so steep, it vaulted its third-largest shareholder, Leo KoGuan, a low-profile, Singapore-based retail trader and professed super fan of Musk, on to the index with a $10.8 billion fortune.
One constant throughout the year was the world’s richest person’s often-sophomoric tweets taunting regulators, riffing on cryptocurrencies or pondering the obligations, tax and otherwise, of the super wealthy. Musk’s social media feed frequently reflected the conflicted relationship between megabillionaires and everyone else in a volatile, increasingly unequal time.