A deep dive into the origins of the superrich: The Peterson Institute for International Economics is compiling one of the most extensive datasets yet on over 2000 billionaires from all over the world. Building on the Forbes World’s Billionaires List, PIIE researchers Caroline Freund and Sarah Oliver collected additional details for each billionaire to create their Billionaires Characteristics Database (available for download here). With data for each billionaires’ net worth at different times in the past 20 years, possible political connections and details on the origins of all that wealth, this dataset is a treasure trove for analysis.
Download the PIIE Working Paper 16-1
What amount of riches are we talking about?
The 2073 billionaires covered in the database had, in 2014, a combined net worth of US$6.45 trillion (to be clear, that is 6.45 million million dollars). Compared to that same years' global GDP this group of people constituting 0.00003% of the world's population held assets equivalent to 8.29% of the global value produced. Top of the list is Bill Gates with a personal net worth of US$76 billion, closely followed by the Mexican media-mogul Carlos Slim with US$72 billion.
Scroll through the slideshow of maps to compare different regions
Billionaires combined net worth per country -- Americas
Number of billionaires in 2014
Per Capita Billionaires
GDP in current US$B
Population in 2014
Sum Net Worth 2014 in US$B
|St. Kitts and Nevis||1||1820||$0.85||54,944||$1.20||St. Kitts and Nevis|
|The United States||653||205||$17,419.00||318,857,056||$2,322.40||The United States|
Billionaires combined net worth per country -- Europe
Billionaires combined net worth per country -- Africa
Billionaires combined net worth per country -- Asia
Area map comparing the sum net worth of each country's billionaires
Billionaires are most abundant in the United States (about 1 in 3 billionaires is a US citizen) where together they account for US$2.3 trillion. Taking total population numbers into account shows that some other countries have a higher number of billionaires per capita: in particular Hong Kong, Switzerland and Singapore stand out with relatively high billionaires-to-citizens ratios (8 billionaires for every million citizens in Hong Kong).
Billionaires grouped by citizenship
Top 50 Billionaires: Net worth as of 2014 in US$ Billion
With data available for the years 1996, 2001 and 2014 we can have a look at how the billionaires' fortunes have fared over the past two decades. The net worth of 406 billionaires in the dataset could be tracked between either 1996 and 2014 or 2001 and 2014. These values were compared to provide an average growth rate of each billionaire's wealth. 80% of this group saw their fortune grow over the years while less than 100 billionaires took some losses.
No one took a bigger hit than Nobutada Saji, who saw over US$6 billion of worth disappear in recent years. It has been mostly good times for the world's billionaires though. The biggest winners, like Sheldon Adelson and Michael Bloomberg, had their net worth increase over thirty-fold between 1996 and 2014.
Estimated average growth of net worth
Showing the average growth of net worth for all billionaires in the database for whom there were net worth data available for 2014, 2001 and/or 1996. The growth rate is calculated based on the the earliest available year for which there was data available. Source: PIIE
One other way of looking at an individual's wealth -- when we're talking about billions -- is comparing it to the GDP of the country they reside in. While the Bill Gates and Carlos Slims of the world can boast the highest total amounts of dollars, they live in countries where their wealth is still only a drop in the bucket. In some other, smaller, economies being a billionaire can mean your wealth equals a considerable portion of your country's GDP -- like Bidzina Ivanishvili matching 31% of Georgia's GDP, or Nathan Kirsh matching 84% of Swaziland's. There's one billionaire however, who's wealth is actually larger than the entire economy of his home country: the tiny island-nation St. Kitts and Nevis' US$850 million economy is dwarfed by Jacky Xu's US$1.2 billion of net worth.
Billionaires wealth as % of their country's GDP
Who are we talking about?
Family money or self-made fortune?
With 552 self-made billionaires -- 66% of its total stock -- the American continent shows itself to be a place with relative economic mobility for the superrich...
Origin of wealth -- Americas
Family money or self-made fortune?
...In particular compared to Europe, the continent with a lot of Old Money: 42% of European billionaires inherited their money...
Origin of wealth -- Europe
Family money or self-made fortune?
...The highest percentage of self-made billionaires can be found in Asia though: over 3 quarters of Asian billionaires made their own fortune.
Origin of wealth -- Asia
Number of Billionaires by Gender
The Gender Divide
Probably unsurprisingly, men make up the vast majority of the world's superrich: 89.7%, or 1828 billionaires in the database are men while 10.3%, or 209 are women. This balance is even worse, from a gender-equality point of view, when we look at self-made billionaires. From a total of 1354 self-made billionaires, only 41, or 3% are women.
There are also some big regional differences in the billionaires gender distribution. The American continent has the highest percentage of female billionaires: Latin America, with 19% women, has by far the highest score in this respect. The gender distribution is most skewed in Asia: 500 billionaires but only 5% are women.
The PIIE found evidence for political connections for 68 billionaires, of which 21 are Russian. Almost all of the politically-connected superrich have self-made fortunes and are from emerging markets. Bigger riches does not seem to correlate with a higher chance of political connections, as most in this group are 'mere' single-digit billionaires. Having political ties also doesn’t seem to be correlated to the billionaires wealth, relative to the GDP of its home country. When your worth rivals your country’s entire economy it’s not hard to imagine how much weight your political positions would carry —however most of the billionaires with a high relative wealth have not been identified to have political ties.
The top 10 superrich with political ties, sorted by their relative wealth are mostly self-made billionaires from Eastern Europe or the Middle East:
Billionaires with political connections by region
What are the sources of all that wealth?
By zooming in on the data we can make several comparisons of the different sources of this wealth. For instance by filtering on region we can compare the most common sources per continent -- and find some distinct differences as well as some recurring trends:
First off, while there's a vast number of different (business) sectors spawning billionaires the world over, over 90% of these can be linked to only one or a handful of billionaires -- only some 30 different sectors have been at the base of the wealth of many. Real estate is the top sector by far, measured by how many billionaires attained their wealth in it.
The regional differences are considerable however: more than half of the world's real estate billionaires are from Asia; in the US only the media sector generates more superrich than real estate; and in Africa real estate has generated only 3 billionaires, trailing far behind sectors like construction and banking.
Zooming in on the double digit billionaires only shows the technology sector topping the list: 1 in 3 tech billionaires ended up not simply with a billion, but with dozens of billions.
Sectors in which fortunes were made by region -- American continent
Sectors in which fortunes were made by region -- Europe
Sectors in which fortunes were made by region -- Asia
Sectors in which fortunes were made by region -- Africa
When comparing self-made billionaires with the ones that came from money some more stark differences appear. Most inherited money has originally been made in construction, retail, media, banking and real estate (with each of these sectors accounting for a comparable number of billionaires). The group of self-mades is far more concentrated in just one sector: real estate (accounting for more than double the amount of billionaires than the next sector, retail).