You already know that the pandemic has been kind to the billionaire class while millions of normal people have lost their their jobs.
But new research shows that an exclusive cohort of the super-rich within the health care sphere have used the pandemic era to turbocharge their wealth, growing their fortune at rates that put even their rival tech billionaires in the shade.
Health care billionaires saw their total wealth increase by a staggering 50.3 percent to $658.6 billion, whereas the buoyant tech sector could offer its leading billionaires a mere 42 percent increase in their wealth (albeit that tech accounts for a larger total amount of billionaire’s wealth, at $1.8 trillion).
On Wednesday, Swiss bank UBS and accountancy firm PWC released their seventh annual report into billionaire wealth, which contained the surprise finding about the meteoric rise of health care billionaires in the age of COVID. Individuals were not named in the report, but many health care billionaires are Chinese; most of the names, such as that of Zhong Huijuan, worth some $15 billion, are hardly even known to general American audiences.
The report says that the health care billionaires' fortunes are being boosted at unprecedented speed “by a new age of drug discovery and innovations in diagnostics and medical technology, as well as latterly COVID-19 treatments and equipment.”
The report concluded that there are now 2,189 billionaires, up from 2,158 in 2017, whose combined wealth amounts to a staggering record high of $10.2 trillion. A trillion is a million million; one way to think about a trillion dollars is that it is enough to pay a year’s salary to 20 million people earning $50,000 a year.
The Billionaires Insights report usually covers a period up to 7 April, but this year the period of study was extended to July 31 to capture the enormous v-shaped rebound in assets and stocks that occurred after the initial crash as the impact of the pandemic began to be felt in the West.
“The 2020 pandemic has created decades of change in just a few months," says the report. Billionaires have been no exception to this. We have seen before how a cohort of billionaire innovators and disrupters, active in tech, health care, and industry, have contributed to reshaping the economy. COVID-19 accelerated this trend dramatically: By demonstrating the value of the digital world they helped to create, they were able to decisively pull ahead of the pack as they increased their wealth while others’ fell.”
The report describes this as a “key moment in economic history... Scientists, computer programmers and engineers are revolutionizing industries at a pace never seen before and they are having a profound impact on the whole of the global economy.”
The report says that during a 31-month period from the beginning of 2018 to the end of July 2020, four technology billionaires’ total wealth rose by 42.5 percent to $1.8 trillion, supported by the surge in tech shares. Meanwhile, health care billionaires’ total wealth increased by 50.3 percent over the same time period. The average billionaire saw their wealth rise by 19.1 percent over the same period.
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 $1.2 trillion.
Their wealth has grown by almost nine times over the past decade, compared with a doubling in the U.S. Last year, Oxfam found the world's 26 richest people were worth more than the poorest half of the global population combined.
The traditional repository of billionaire wealth, commercial real estate, has, however, been badly affected by the pandemic, with one Thai billionaire telling researchers, “If the real estate situation looks bad from the outside in, it’s actually worse from the inside.” Another adds, “Real estate got sucker punched.”
On philanthropy, the report says, “Billionaires are giving more than at any time in history,” rather grandly claiming that “the upsurge is reminiscent of the first few decades of the 20th century, at the time of the Second Industrial Revolution, when the relationship between American capitalism and philanthropy flourished, and fortunes were invested in supporting opportunity creation through schools, universities, libraries and research centers.”
The report says that 209 billionaires have publicly committed a total of $7.2 billion in coronavirus mitigation gifts and grants. In the U.S., 98 billionaires donated a total of $4.5 billion, while in China 12 billionaires gave $679 million.
The UBS report did not rank the fortunes of the world’s wealthy, but the richest person on the planet is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, worth $175 billion on Wednesday. Bezos’ wealth has increased by $74 billion so far this year, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index, due to the surge in Amazon’s share price.
Elon Musk, the maverick founder of electric car company Tesla, has made the most money so far this year with his fortune tracking the meteoric rise of Tesla shares, which multiplied in price by a factor of five this year. He owns 20 percent of the stock, which saw his wealth increasing by $76 billion to top $103 billion in the summer; it has now fallen back to $88 billion.