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Money Matters

China making two billionaires every week as world’s super-rich become wealthier than ever before, report reveals

  • Richest people on Earth increased their wealth by a fifth to US$8.9 trillion, says Swiss bank UBS
  • Major wealth transition ahead as hundreds of elderly super-rich prepare to pass down their fortunes
PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 3:17pm

Billionaires made more money in 2017 than in any year in recorded history. The richest people on Earth increased their wealth by a fifth to US$8.9 trillion, according to a report by Swiss bank UBS.

The fortunes of today’s super-wealthy have risen at a far greater rate than at the turn of the 20th century, when families such as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts controlled vast wealth. The report by UBS and accountants PwC said there was so much money in the hands of the ultra-rich that a new wave of rich and powerful multigenerational families was being created.

“The past 30 years have seen far greater wealth creation than the Gilded Age,” the UBS Billionaires 2018 report said.

“That period bred generations of families in the US and Europe who went on to influence business, banking, politics, philanthropy and the arts for more than 100 years. With wealth set to pass from entrepreneurs to their heirs in the coming years, the 21st century multigenerational families are being created.”

The world’s 2,158 billionaires grew their combined wealth by US$1.4 trillion last year, more than the GDP of Spain or Australia, as booming stock markets helped the already very wealthy to achieve the “greatest absolute growth ever”.

More than 40 of the 179 new billionaires created last year inherited their wealth, and given the number of billionaires over 70 the report’s authors expect a further US$3.4 trillion to be handed down over the next 20 years.

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“A major wealth transition has begun,” the report said. “Over the past five years, the sum passed by deceased billionaires to beneficiaries has grown by an average of 17 per cent each year, to reach US$117 billion in 2017. In that year alone, 44 heirs inherited more than a billion dollars each.

“The calculation is simple. There are 701 billionaires over the age of 70, whose wealth will transition to heirs and philanthropy over the next 20 years, given the statistical probability of average life expectancy.”

Most of the world’s billionaires are in the US, but the number of ultra-wealthy people is growing fast in China, where two new billionaires are minted every week.

“Twelve years ago, the world’s most populous country was home to only 16 billionaires,” the report said. “Today, as the ‘Chinese Century’ progresses, they number 373, nearly one in five of the global total.”

There are 701 billionaires over the age of 70, whose wealth will transition to heirs and philanthropy over the next 20 years
UBS Report

One Chinese billionaire told the researchers: “Nowhere else in the world can you find better conditions for growth than in China. The continued progress of wealth creation is supported by government policies liberating the economy, while urbanisation and business model disruption has crafted powerful new entrepreneurs.”

Globally, the 30 richest septuagenarians or older have a combined net worth of more than US$1 trillion.

David Rockefeller, the last surviving grandchild of the Standard Oil founder John D Rockefeller, who became the world’s first billionaire in 1916, died at the age of 101 last year with a US$3.3 billion fortune. An auction of the art and antiquities he and his wife collected – including pieces by Monet, Matisse and Picasso – raised more than US$832 million for charities they supported.

UBS said the adage that the first generation makes the fortune, the second generation preserves it and the third generation squanders no longer applies. Some families have kept vast fortunes for five or six generations, and some heirs have even increased the overall fortune, the report said.

“As we work with our billionaire clients, many of the next generation seem highly motivated, committed to their chosen careers, the family business and/or doing social good,” the report said.

One billionaire told the researchers: “The new generation, born in the internet era, are more willing to take risks. They have more information and can be more courageous about trying new ideas and being entrepreneurial.”

A 30-year-old billionaire heir said: “I think that my generation wants to achieve a more holistic life and shed some of the hypocrisies of previous generations. We want to have a return but with impact. Our investments should reflect who we are and what we believe.”

But not all of the vast wealth held by elderly billionaires may be transferred to their children, because many of the world’s richest people have signed up to Giving Pledge – that is to give at least half of their wealth to charity.

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More than 180 people have signed up to the scheme, since it was launched by Bill Gates, 62, the world’s second richest person with a US$95 billion fortune, and Warren Buffett, 88, the third richest with US$84 billion.

The world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, who has an estimated net worth of US$146 billion, more than any one person in history, has not signed up to the pledge. He created the Bezos Day One Fund last month, a US$2 billion scheme to help address homelessness and improve education for children in low-income families.

The richest person in the UK is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the founder and chief executive of the petrochemicals company Ineos and a high-profile Brexiter, who has an estimated fortune of £21 billion (US$27 billion). Ratcliffe is preparing to leave Britain for tax-free Monaco, just months after he was knighted for services to business and investment.

Ratcliffe has not signed up to the Giving Pledge. His biggest public contribution has been a £25 million donation to the London Business School, which renamed its main John Nash-designed building the Ratcliffe.

Alibaba Group is the owner of the South China Morning Post.