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Billionaires get $1 trillion richer as part of super-rich 'super cycle'

  • The wealth held by the world's billionaires jumped by nearly $1 trillion in 2016, according to a report by UBS and PwC.
  • They now have more money than the GDP of Germany or Japan.
  • The population of billionaires rose by 145, or about 10 percent in 2016, to 1,542 billionaires, according to the report.
Billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett speak with journalist Charlie Rose at an event organized by Columbia Business School on Jan. 27, 2017, in New York.
Getty Images
Billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett speak with journalist Charlie Rose at an event organized by Columbia Business School on Jan. 27, 2017, in New York.

The wealth held by the world's billionaires jumped by nearly $1 trillion in 2016, and they now have more money than the GDP of Germany or Japan, according to a new report.

The population of billionaires rose by 145, or about 10 percent in 2016, to 1,542 billionaires, according to the report by UBS and PwC. The wealth held by those billionaires increased from $5.1 trillion to $6 trillion, according to the report.

The surge in wealth by the world's billionaires far surpassed broader economic growth or stock markets. Their performance was twice the increase in the MSCI AC World Index, which measures stock market performance around the world. Billionaire wealth also far surpassed global economic growth of 5.8 percent in 2016, according to the report.

So how did the billionaires make so much money last year? Stronger stock markets, rising commodity and real estate prices and tech investments.

"Movements in financial markets and currencies dominate the picture from year to year," the report said. "Four principal sectors were behind 2016's resurgence — materials (up 31%), technology (up 23%), financial services (up 16%) and industrials (up 28%)."

The report said stronger commodity prices "helped boost billionaires in the mining, steel and oil industries."

While billionaire wealth is greater than the GDP of any country in the European Union, the world's billionaires also employ a population equal to a small country. The report said the world's billionaires, most of whom own part or all of their own companies, directly employ 27.7 million people, equal to the working population of the U.K.

Since the vast majority of today's billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs, "growing entrepreneurial wealth has been accompanied by expanding employment," the report said.
It said the current cycle of billionaire growth started in 1980 and warned that this super cycle for billionaires isn't likely to last forever.

"This period of great wealth creation is now approaching the longevity of its predecessor, which according to most historians lasted from 1870 to 1910," the report said. "If history is guide, the current upcycle is likely to end in the next 10 to 20 years, possible prolonged by Asia's economic momentum and technology's new businesses."

Indeed, Asia has become hottest region for billionaire growth. The report said Asia now has more billionaires than the U.S. has – although the U.S. still has by far the largest number of billionaires than any single country.

The U.S. has 563 billionaires compared with 318 in China, according to the report. Yet China added a net new 67 billionaires last year compared with 25 net new billionaires in the U.S. Europe added a net of only three billionaires last year. The U.S. also has the largest share of billionaire wealth — $2.8 trillion.

The report said Asia will continue to be the big driver of billionaire fortunes, and that Asian billionaire wealth will outstrip the U.S. in four years. But Asia also has risks.

"Rapid economic development, political uncertainty and erratic stock markets forge fortunes fast but can equally undo them," the report said.

Correction: The wealth held by the world's billionaires totals more money than the GDP of Germany or Japan, according to a new report. Also, billionaire wealth is greater than the GDP of any country in the European Union. Those comparisons were misstated in an earlier version of this article.

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