An orgy of wealth

Jomo Thomas

By Jomo Sanga Thomas

As the world economy crashed around us, a group of people, the very rich, known as the billionaire club, profited handsomely from the pandemic. The Billionaire’s Club, which has a worldwide membership of about 2,200, saw its wealth grow by over $2.2 trillion in the last 12 months. They have a combined wealth of $12 trillion.

As the world muses at the first anniversary of the coronavirus plague, the International Labour Organisation reports that 93% of the world’s workers reside in countries with some form of workplace closure measures. More than 200 million persons lost their jobs, while the amount of income lost was estimated at $3.5 trillion. It said the world economy faced high levels of uncertainty and noted that the lockdown had its most significant impact on young workers, women, the self-employed and persons who occupied low and medium-skilled jobs.

The plague has not only killed millions and maimed more, but it has also had its most devastating effect on poor, small and developing countries. The impact is significant here in the Caribbean because of our vulnerable, tourism-dependent economies.

Barbados, Trinidad, Grenada and Jamaica are in a state of complete lockdown while the other countries in the region, like SVG, muddle through in a delicate balance act to ensure we protect citizens, save lives, as well as guard the economy to allow for a healthy living.

Because we, in the region, are resourced starved and don’t have the money to dole out stimulus package after stimulus package, our leaders are extensively tested.

For most people, wherever they might be in this world, these are not the best times to be alive. It is equally valid for the political class. These are dangerous times to occupy the seat of power.

Not so with those who occupy the Billionaire Club. The pandemic has served them well. In a system where capitalist rules of economic organisation predominate, the rich, well to do and well connected, will always do well. At the same time, the lower classes of people will catch hell. The last 12 months have graphically brought home this truism to the most naive or anyone engaging in wilful denialism.

The Institute for Policy Studies published a report entitled Billionaire Bonanza 2020: Wealth Windfalls, Tumbling Taxes and Pandemic Profiteers. The report looked at the wealth gains of the very rich and contrasted that with the surge in unemployment.

The Policy Institute found 657 billionaires in the United States as of March 18, 2021, and their combined wealth grew by more than $1.3 trillions or 44.6%. During this same period, 29 million Americans contracted the coronavirus, and more than half a million died from or with it.

In contrast to this ravenous wealth growth among the wealthy, more than 75 million people lost their jobs across the United States and close to 20 million continue to collect unemployment insurance. At the same time that people across the world marked the dreaded anniversary of this plague, 43 persons smiled their way into the billionaire’s club.

French and Chinese billionaires also did well. The French superrich is now worth more than 500 million. The Luxury goods titan Bernard Arnault wealth increased by $35 billion, and L’Oreal heiress Francoise Bettencourt added $14 billion to her fortune. Chinese billionaire Zhong Shanshan wealth grew from 2 billion to 62.2 billion. Colin Zheng Huang owns $32.4 billion, while Jack Ma of the famed Alibaba chain clocked in at $61.7 billion.

The combined wealth of the 15 American billionaires with the enormous growth in wealth is staggering. The development represents an increase of $563 billion or 82%. The wealth growth of the top 15 represents over 40% of the wealth growth among all billionaires. Topping the list are Elon Musk ($137.5 billion richer, 559%), Jeff Bezos ($65 billion, 58%) and Mark Zuckerberg ($47 billion, 86%).

In this world of big money, the top ten investors enjoyed an average increase of 300%. Their fortunes grew because of their dominance in the world of online goods, services and entertainment, as locked down Americans shopped online, invested or searched for creative ways to pass time during this prolonged isolated lockdown. Owners of the social media sites Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter; online streaming platform Roku that allows for at-home entertainment, grew exponentially.

Since March 2020 and now, Elon Musk wealth grew by more than 559% or an eye-opening $137 billion to leapfrog him over Bill Gates of Micro-Soft and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to snatch the title as the richest man in the world. The combined wealth of American billionaires grew by more than $1 trillion to more than $4 trillion.

For those among us who have sufficient money to invest in the stock market, the good fortune of the following persons may worth tracking as you choose stocks:

1. Bom Kim (670%/$7.7 billion): A U.S. citizen and founder of the e-commerce giant Coupang, the Amazon of South Korea. Kim’s fortune surged as high as $11 billion after his company went public earlier this month.

2. Ernest Garcia II (567%/$13.6 billion): Biggest shareholder of Carvana, the online car sales and auto-financing giant.

3. Elon Musk (559%/$137.5 billion): Musk is now the second wealthiest Americans—at nearly $138 billion—as his shares in Tesla, Space-X and other companies that he owns continue to climb.

4. Bobby Murphy (531%/$10.1 billion): Co-founder of Snapchat, with his Stanford fraternity brother, Evan Spiegel.

5. Evan Spiegel (490%/$9.3 billion): Co-founder of Snapchat with his other billionaire super-gainer, Bobby Murphy.

6. Jack Dorsey (396%/$10.3 billion): Co-founder and CEOs of both Twitter and Square, the small business payment app.

7. Anthony Wood (331%/$5.3 billion): Founder of Roku, which enables online TV video streaming.

8. The co-founder of video-conferencing technology, Eric Yuan, Zoom, saw his wealth rise by $8.4 billion during the pandemic year, a gain of 153%. A year ago, Yuan had $5.5 billion which increased to $13.9 billion. Last year Zoom paid no federal taxes on its $660 million in profits, which increased by more than 4,000%.

However, while American plutocrats grabbed the headlines for their increasing fortunes, Chinese billionaires have gotten the riches this year in dollar term. They added $750 billion to their net worth in 2020.

We predict a turning point is not too far ahead. The world cannot go on much longer with this grotesque income gap.

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

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