The massive accumulation of wealth by technology billionaires – who can’t even give away their money fast enough to stop themselves getting richer – has led to the observation that we are now living through a new Gilded Age.
When industrialist Andrew Carnegie sold US Steel for US$480 million in 1901, he became the richest person on earth. The sum was mind-blowing then, during America’s first Gilded Age, when the so-called “robber barons” built their monopolies in the oil, steel and railways businesses.
Back then, to be a millionaire was really something. Today, a millionaire might be able to afford a modest house in the suburbs – but nowhere near a John D Rockefeller kind of neighbourhood.
While the value of money has certainly changed over the century, Carnegie’s haul, translated as a share of the US gross national product, would be equivalent to around US$490 billion today. His personal half-share
of the sale price still puts him way beyond the league of today’s tech billionaires – dubbed “silicon sultans” by The Economist magazine.
The title of ‘world’s richest person’ now gets shuffled around like a pack of cards almost on a weekly basis, but is currently likely to be Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates or Inditex’s Amancio Ortega. Their fortunes range between around US$80 billion and US$90 billion, depending on what is happening in the markets. Recently, it has been widely speculated that Gates or Bezos may be well positioned to become the first ever trillionaire.
A trillion is a thousand billion. That many zeros have not been seen in personal bank accounts since 2009, when a 100-trillion banknote was minted in hyperinflationary Zimbabwe and backpackers needed wheelbarrows to carry their ‘Zim dollars’ after cashing their $20 traveller’s cheques.
UK charity Oxfam claims the world’s first US-dollar trillionaire could emerge in the next 25 years. Bezos would be 78 in the year 2042, Gates 86. The two others at the top of the billionaire list, Warren Buffett and Ortega, are already in their eighties and may run out of time.
Other billionaires may have the luxury of relative youth, but are also many billions away from the wealth of the top three. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who is only 33, has around US$69.9 billion, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, 52, around US$37 billion, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both in their early forties, have around US$43 billion each. China’s Ma Huateng is 45 and has accrued around US$36 billion from internet media, and Tesla’s Elon Musk, aged 46, has US$20.7 billion, according to Forbes.
Credit Suisse has forecast there will be 11 trillionaires within just two generations. It might be said that such predictions are on shaky ground because none of us can know if, in the next quarter century, the world and its riches will be hit by calamity such as world war or natural disaster. And then there is the possibility of another technological revolution that could upend fortunes.
In addition, billionaires have a habit of dying, which usually means their wealth is divided among heirs, who may not have the same ability to grow their fortunes to trillion-dollar status. When Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, most of his fortune went to his widow Laurene Powell, who now ranks among the 50 richest people on earth thanks to the billions he left behind.
Like Carnegie, the extremely wealthy still like to give their money away. He distributed US$350 million (and still died with US$30 million unspent). Around 170 billionaires of the second Gilded Age have signed up to Bill and Melinda Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, promising to donate more than half their fortunes to charities.
The big question, then, is where a future trillionaire might come from. According to US billionaire entrepreneur, Mark Cuban, AI is where it is at. “I am telling you, the world’s first trillionaires are going to come from somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives and applies it in ways we never thought of,” Cuban said earlier this year. Some of the biggest investors in AI right now are companies founded by the aforementioned billionaires, Page and Brin, Zuckerberg, Gates, and Bezos.
Others have speculated that extreme wealth could flow to those who make commercial breakthroughs in energy (notable investors are Gates, Musk, Bezos, and Virgin’s Richard Branson, aged 67), prolonging human life (Brin, Page, Bezos, and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, aged 49) and exploiting the potential of space (Branson, Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg).
Geographically, it seems to be assumed that the first trillionaire will come from the US – which has 620 billionaires (the highest concentration) and dominates in producing new ones from its tech sector. However, China is producing a new billionaire every three days (it now has 249 – the second highest number) and those with extreme wealth have not yet shown an inclination to give it away through large-scale philanthropy.
One thing is certain, however, the world’s first trillionaire is not going to be motivated by the prospect of a thousand billion bucks in the bank. A survey of billionaires by UBS and PwC finds they have three goals and values: business first, values not valuables, identity through philanthropy. Or, as oil baron John D Rockefeller, once advised: “If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it”.
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