There are more billionaires than ever, but their fortunes took a big hit in 2018

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 17, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Simon Dawson.

More billionaires walk the earth than ever before, their ranks surging 40 percent in five years, new research shows.

The world’s 2,100 billionaires saw their fortunes swell 34.5 percent from 2013 to 2018, to $8.5 trillion, according to UBS’s 2019 Billionaire Insights report released Friday. But 2018 was actually a losing year for most of them, thanks to global trade friction and stock market volatility. The lost a combined $388 billion.

Tech billionaires bucked that trend, growing their wealth by 3.4 percent, or $1.3 trillion, in 2018, according to the report. They’ve nearly doubled their ranks the past five years, from 76 to 148 in 2018,

“If tech billionaires’ wealth were a country, it would rank second only to the US,” the report said. “Looking back over five years, tech billionaires have driven almost a third of the growth in billionaire wealth. US tech billionaires accounted for more than half of that growth.” UBS is one of the world’s largest wealth managers with close to 1,000 billionaire clients.

But the burgeoning roster of the super-rich feeds into a wider debate about income inequality, which has become a signature issue for presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders has gone so far as to say billionaires shouldn’t even exist.

The number of female billionaires has skyrocketed the past five years, climbing 46 percent to 233. Their collective wealth grew to $871 billion, led by progress in Asia, according to the report.

“While Asia continues to be seen as having more traditionally male-dominated cultures, it is heartening to see that the number of female billionaire has grown to more than double over the last five years,” Julia Leong, partner and private banking lead, noted in the report.

Asia has seen some of the greatest advances in wealth and is now home to more than a third of the world’s billionaires, their fortunes totaling $2.5 trillion. China recently surpassed the United States for the first time in claiming the largest share of the world’s richest people. An October report from Credit Suisse said 100 million Chinese citizens are listed among the top 10 percent of all earners. The United States has 99 million people on that ranking, though it still has more millionaires, with about 40 percent of the world’s total, according to the report.

But China’s ultra-wealthy have been hammered by the nation’s cooling economic growth, market fluctuations and weakening yuan; their net worth declined by 12.3 percent in 2018. The decline bumped dozens from the billionaires list and contributed significantly to the global drop-off in billionaire fortunes.

Sanders and Warren have made taxing billionaires prominent features of their presidential campaigns. Warren this week released a billionaire calculator to help the ultrawealthy see how much they’d have left under her plan, which would impose an annual 2 percent tax on households with more than $50 million in assets and a 6 percent levy on fortunes in excess of $1 billion.

Warren released the calculator after reports of Michael Bloomberg’s possible entry into the 2020 presidential race, a candidacy that was lauded by fellow billionaires like hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman. The calculator included personalized links for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Bloomberg and Cooperman, all of whom have publicly worried about how their fortunes would fare under her presidency.

“Good news,” the landing pages on Warren’s website, read. “You’ll still be extraordinarily rich.”



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