One of the biggest financial worries that the world’s facing these days is income inequality. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that the top 99 percent of the world’s wealth is owned by just one percent of the country. The first time that the United States experienced that type of income inequality was around the beginning of the 20th century, when most of the wealth was owned by just three families (The Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers).
After an extended period where things were more equal, the new millennium has seen most of the wealth stick around with just a small group of billionaires. It’s now estimated that the net worth of the world’s billionaires (just over 1,500 people) is above $6 trillion, setting a new record. There are also more billionaires these days, with more than 100 being added per year on average.
This new era is being referred to as the second “Gilded Age” of super-rich that control most of the world’s economy. Report author Josef Stadler said that “We’re at an inflection point. Wealth concentration is as high as in 1905, this is something billionaires are concerned about. The problem is the power of interest on interest – that makes big money bigger and, the question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”
Stadler explains the political intervention could lead to better income equality across the world, which is how the first Gilded Age came to an end. President Theodore Roosevelt was able to break apart many of the industrial monopolies in the early 20th century that saw a handful of people control the economy. However, some researchers warn that special interests donating big money to politicians could keep this Gilded Age going on for much longer than the original. The main way to create more equality, according to the International Monetary Fund, is by drastically increasing taxes on the top one percent of earners.
Stadler adds that billionaires these days are returning more of their wealth into society compared to the first Gilded Age, with an estimted 98 percent. Fewer monopolies have meant that there’s a wider range of billionaires throughout business with more competition, adding many more employees to the tune of 27.7 million working for the super-rich. On top of that, billionaires have been donating more to charities, including the likes of Bill Gates, who has set a precedent for philanthropy among billionaires.
Dr. Marcel Widrig of PricewaterhouseCoopers says that those who are among the richest aren’t hanging onto their wealth like they used to many years ago. “Today’s billionaires also feel a responsibility to drive social and economic impact,” he said. “Whether that means creating a private museum to promote the arts of buying a professional sports team to promote a passion.” Because of that, many of the world’s professional sports team owners and art collectors are among the super-rich.
Estimates say that there’s also an upcoming transfer of the world’s money that will produce massive numbers. As many of the billionaires are over 70 years old, it’s predicted that the upcoming decade will see more than $2 trillion transferred. Much of that will make its way to family members of these billionaires, while a significant portion will also be put into philanthropic efforts across the globe.
In terms of where the billionaires of the world are, it’s now China that has the highest number of billionaires, though the United States billionaires still control the most wealth at nearly $3 trillion. UBS CIO Mark Haefele said that “As China hooks up its capital markets to the global systems, it will have a very profound impact on capital flows – on Europe as well.” India has also seen a rise in new billionaires, though China is adding a new billionaire on an average of every three weeks.”
Qiong Zhang of UBS says “For many of the first generation of entrepreneurs, a major focus is bringing business to the capital markets, raising funds and M&A.” Europe, on the other hand, has not seen an increase in billionaires compared to other regions as “entrepreneurial companies can find Europe a difficult place to do business due to both the conservative business culture and strict regulations.”
Some researchers expect a backlash against the rising number of billionaires and a smaller control over the world’s wealth. However, it won’t be as swift as the end of the first Gilded Age. We could still see a yearly rise in taxes that would affect billionaire numbers, as well as the total wealth overall, but nothing as drastic as the Roosevelt era political reform is expected.