The number of billionaires spiked by 30% during the pandemic

Demonstrators protest outside Amazon headquarters, holding a sign reading “Tax Bezos”.
The rise in billionaires’ net worths during the Covid-19 pandemic has reinvigorated the debate about their role in society. | David Ryder/Bloomberg/Getty Images

It’s easy to lose track of the numbers. But you shouldn’t.

The total number of billionaires exploded over the course of the coronavirus pandemic — and they individually became extraordinarily wealthier during the last 12 months.

That’s according to a new report from Forbes, which does one of the most complete analyses each spring about the state of the billionaire class across the globe. Tracking the net worths of the wealthy is painstaking work that requires sifting through arcane filings — and the end results are not perfect — but the estimates offered by Forbes represent one of the best stabs at covering the scale of income inequality in the world. And while it’s easy to lose track of the numbers or to see the figures as old news — “Billionaires continue to be billionaires” — the scale matters for anyone who wants to get a grasp on how much of a problem wealth inequality truly is.

The world is now home to 2,755 billionaires, a world record and a startling 30 percent increase from Forbes’ accounting last year of the world’s uber-rich. And 86 percent of those billionaires are richer than they were a year ago. The list does paint an exaggerated picture of some of the pandemic gains, because it compares today’s net worths to Forbes’ last analysis in mid-March 2020, when the market had yet to recover from the early pandemic-inspired sell-off.

The pandemic has reinvigorated the debate over inequality, with nations like Argentina adopting a wealth tax and other similar proposals gaining a foothold in the United States. In the US, many Americans have more personal income and savings than they had before the pandemic, thanks in part to unprecedented government stimulus measures. But at the same time, demand for food pantries smashed records and the economy shed about 10 million jobs. Billionaire philanthropists have played center stage in America’s recovery.

Perhaps no statistic better encapsulates the scale of the yawning inequality than that MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos and one of the wealthiest people in the world, probably gave more money away directly to nonprofits in 2020 than any person has in a single year ever before. Yet because of Amazon’s surging stock price, she actually ended the year richer, Forbes reports.

Forbes finds that the tech set, like Scott, fared particularly well. Six of the world’s 10 richest people made their money in tech, and the total assets controlled by all tech billionaires globally measures $2.5 trillion, far more than any other industry. Neither of those figures include Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who is classified by Forbes as in the automotive industry but has ridden Tesla’s extraordinary bull run to become the second richest person in the world.

That’s all to say that the debate over wealth inequality isn’t going anywhere, even when the pandemic fades away. Check out Recode’s recent coverage of how the coronavirus has made America more reliant on billionaires and our exclusive polling on how ordinary Americans feel about these central characters in American society.

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