For the first time since 2018, the number of global billionaires fell last year as the war in Ukraine, surging inflation, and US-China strain caused worldwide economic volatility. The billionaire population slumped by 3.5% to 3,194 people, who lost $11.1 trillion in wealth, according to the annual billionaire census by data company Altrata. The census is based on data from the Wealth-X database, the world’s largest collection of research on the wealthy.
The slump comes after a surge in billionaire wealth in the first two years of the pandemic. From 2020-2021, the world’s top 1% gained $28 trillion in wealth, an Oxfam report found, and U.S. billionaires became a third richer. Part of this was because the stock market boomed in 2021 from low interest rates and high government spending.
But Wealth-X found that the total wealth of the billionaire population declined by 5.5% in 2022—the second largest annual dip in a decade. North America, home to about a third of all billionaires, saw its share of the population drop by 2.3% to 1,011 individuals, while Asia saw the most dramatic decline of 7.1% to 835 individuals. Asian billionaires also lost the biggest chunk of their money in 2022, losing 9% of their total holdings. The only regions that saw growth in billionaire wealth last year were the Middle East (by 7.2%) and Latin America (by 4.4%).
But despite Asia’s overall decrease in billionaires, Singapore was the top ranked city in billionaire population growth, adding 54 more people to its ranks in 2022. Billionaires are still concentrated in superstar cities, with New York, Hong Kong, and San Francisco boasting the highest numbers at 136, 112, and 84 billionaires, respectively.
Whether billionaires accrued or lost wealth last year differed greatly by industry, the report found. Those with technology, healthcare, or energy empires lost over 5% of their wealth, whereas aerospace, shipping, construction, and food and beverage tycoons generally got richer. Older billionaires also fared better than their younger counterparts, with those over 70 losing an average of just 2.2% of their assets, close to half the 5.5% average of the overall population.
Post-pandemic trends influenced the resilience or vulnerability of sectors, with food and beverage staying afloat as consumer staples with strong profit margins. Likewise, shipping billionaires benefited from the global trade economy recovering from pandemic disruption and supply chains falling back into regular rhythm, according to the census. It added that the war in Ukraine also bolstered wealth for the defense sector, as it demanded increased production of military equipment.
Gender and generational gaps
Despite fluctuations in the wealth and size of the billionaire population, another aspect remains mostly stagnant. The gender disparity among billionaires is still wide, but the percentage of women is higher in the younger billionaire age brackets. Overall, women make up just 12.5% of all billionaires, but in the under 50 bracket, they make up 17.9%
“Diversifying global wealth markets, the growth in female entrepreneurship, slowly evolving cultural (and boardroom) attitudes, and the rising frequency of substantial inter-generational wealth transfers are all contributory factors,” the census said of the slow-changing gender split.
There’s also a difference in where billionaires of different ages made their money. While the biggest sector of all three age brackets (under 50, 50-70, and 70+) is banking and finance, the youngest group of billionaires’ second biggest industry is technology. In comparison, technology doesn’t even rank among the top five industries of billionaires 70 and older. What’s more, the industry that ranked second among the two older brackets of billionaires—industrial conglomerates—is not present in the top five industries of young billionaires.
The difference between old and young billionaires’ industries signals a huge shift in how the world’s richest are making their billions. Technology, especially with the emergence of A.I., is the buzzy new moneymaker, while some traditional industries like conglomerates seem to be fading from the picture. In the context of the overall wealth decline, the durability of technology and other new wellsprings of wealth remains to be seen.