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In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, Billionaires Are Taking Over the World

A new report from a Swiss wealth management company documents the relentless rise of the global billionaire class. Here are some highlights — translated into plain English.

A luxury sports car and a yacht in Cannes, France. Alex.AF / Flickr

Business or financial reports are often written in a deliberately boosterish style that plays up the sexy stuff — annual profits, growth, “sustainability” — while disguising their more dystopian takeaways. Take the new UBS Billionaires Insights report, which offers the company’s investor audience a genuinely chilling vision of our current world, all laid out in bland, colorless finance-speak. Some of the most interesting bits are translated below.

This report tells the story of a group of 2,158 individuals and counting.

The vast majority of the world’s wealth is owned by a group of people the size of a large school.

Over the past two centuries their predecessors’ restless entrepreneurial spirit has given us revolutionary innovations such as the steam engine, the motor car, and the internet.

Because this kind of wealth inequality is obscene, we need to justify it by suggesting it was the ultra-rich who were responsible for history’s most world-changing inventions, including the Internet, a famously government-driven development.

Nowhere is this more visible than in China. Twelve years ago, the world’s most populous country was home to only 16 billionaires. Today, as the ‘Chinese Century’ progresses, they number 373 – nearly one in five of the global total.

The world’s last great “Communist” power is in reality an oligarchic dictatorship, and its already extreme inequality has gotten worse in the past decade.

Over the next two decades, we will see USD 3.4 trillion of wealth pass on to a new generation. Many of this younger, emerging group are looking to become entrepreneurs in their own right, transforming family businesses into business families.

A select group of families are going to hand down a sum of money the size of Germany’s GDP to their kids, in the process turning wealthy families into neo-aristocratic dynasties.

As billionaires continue to grow in number and evolve, their influence will continue to expand beyond the economy and into tackling some of the biggest challenges facing humankind.

With the number and collective wealth of the world’s billionaires getting bigger, they’re no longer going to be content with just making money, but will increasingly become politically involved. Think Bill Gates pushing charter schools, anti-unionism, and genetically engineered mosquitos around the world. Think Sheldon Adelson becoming a one-man pro-Israel lobby. Think a small army of Koch brothers, Peter Thiels, and Robert Mercers.

New multigenerational families are being created, recognizing the need to plan for succession. In 2017 alone, 44 heirs inherited more than a billion dollars each.

With new potential dynasties constantly popping up, the super-rich are increasingly going to scheme about how to pass as much of their wealth as possible to their kids — maybe by finally repealing the estate tax after decades of trying. And if you were annoyed about the “small” million-dollar loan Trump got from his dad, you’ll be interested to learn that forty-four people somewhere just got a billion dollars last year for doing nothing.

While sustainable investing is already becoming mainstream, as millennials assume roles in family offices and philanthropic organizations the trend is likely to grow stronger.

Future woke billionaires will invest more and more in things like green technology and energy, cricket farms, and and lab-grown meat. On the other hand, they’ll also almost certainly resist the rapid and drastic overhaul of the economic system that generates their profits, and which is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As the value of billionaires’ assets grew by USD 1.4 trillion to USD 8.9 trillion in 2017, the greatest annual increase ever, just 332 new billionaires accounted for more than a third (38%) of the increase.

Like underwater rivers at the bottom of the ocean floor, there is a smaller subset of the super-rich that disproportionately accounts for the already wildly disproportionate gains.

Growing by almost a fifth (19% compared to 18% the year before), 2017’s increase was substantially higher than the average 9% for the past five years.

Nearly ten years on from the global financial crisis, while many ordinary households in both the US and around the world are nowhere near full recovery nor recouping the wealth they lost, the world’s billionaires are now getting richer at an even faster pace than they were a few years ago.

Three decades of exceptional entrepreneurial activity is creating newly influential families: the new Rockefellers and Rothschilds.

Remember how in school you learned about the Gilded Age and the insane amount of wealth and power wielded by a few ultra-rich robber baron monopolists? Well, good news: that’s a thing again.

China’s billionaires have a high turnover –106 people became billionaires but 51 dropped off the list, illustrating the risks of doing business in China.

The Chinese business environment is insanely corrupt, and individuals who become extremely rich regularly become targets of state repression or selective investigations into otherwise endemic shady practices.

While the US has the largest concentration of billionaire wealth, its growth has slowed. 2017’s 12% growth, to USD 3.1 trillion, was far lower than the average global rate.

American billionaires are underperforming on the world stage, which doesn’t really matter, since they’re still unimaginably rich and powerful.

Signaling the importance of multigenerational families, wealth transition between the generations of just five families in Consumer & Retail (cosmetics, retail, foods and toys), as well as Technology, accounted for almost a third (30%) of Western Europe’s total wealth expansion.

If you’re still not convinced the world is retreating to a type of neo-feudalism, just five families were responsible for almost a third of the wealth increase for Western Europe’s billionaires.

The past 30 years have seen far greater wealth creation than the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century.

We are dropping all pretense and explicitly comparing today with that other historical “growth period” synonymous with Dickensian poverty and dystopian inequality.

Sentiment from UBS’s network of client entrepreneurs (UBS Industry Leader Network) reinforces this, with the view that operating sustainably and ethically is a must. They cite many reasons, including consumer preference for ethically produced discretionary products, risk of falling foul of to strict environmental and energy efficiency regulations, and that displays of business integrity help retain employees and attract new talent.

Never mind the tax-dodging, rampant wage theft, mistreatment of workers, or the political offensives launched against government regulations — billionaires pinky-swear to be ethical and sustainable.

Europe’s old families are often cited as the model for succession planning.

Today’s neo-aristocracy is explicitly modeling itself on the remnants of European nobility.