A Boom Year for Billionaires

Far from business as usual, US billionaire wealth has grown by a full third since January.

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2020 has been a windfall year for businesses that have been able to thrive on adverse conditions – and for the CEOs and company founders that helm them. The ATF collated data on US billionaires’ earnings between March and October as reported by Forbes, finding that the combined net worth of America’s 686 billionaires reached a total of $4 trillion since January – jumping by a third in a span of months. With all 2,200-plus billionaires taken into account, this figure reaches a staggering $1.9 trillion.

While plenty of companies have stepped into the light as 2020’s winners, here we will be looking at the individuals behind these successes and others. Where does their net worth stand after this year’s record gains?

Elon Musk – $157 Billion

It would be remiss not to mention the Tesla founder and CEO as a success story for the year. As one of the 686 US billionaires who experienced the aforementioned surge in wealth, Musk stands apart for the sheer speed of his rise. Beginning the year with a hardly inconsiderable net worth of $30 billion, Musk added an astonishing $140 billion over the months through to December, overtaking Bill Gates to become the world’s second-richest person in November and even beginning to close in on Jeff Bezos at the number one spot.

The bulk of this new wealth stems, of course, from the surging value of Tesla, which this summer became the world’s most highly valued automaker and has only grown bigger since then. While the EV maker’s shares’ 6.5% slide on its first day of trading on the S&P 500 might look like a troubling sign, the loss looks less significant next to the 60% gains it made following the announcement of its listing on the index, and minuscule next to its 650% year-on-year surge. Nothing thus far has succeeded in curbing Tesla’s rise, and Musk continues to enjoy his 18% stake in the ballooning business. His other industry-leading venture, SpaceX, also made headlines this year for supplying the first commercial spacecraft to be used successfully in a mission to the International Space Station.

2020 has been a windfall year for businesses that have been able to thrive on adverse conditions.

Ever active on social media, Musk has become an enormously influential business leader who can send one tweet about a cryptocurrency rival to Bitcoin and promptly boost its value by 35%. Analysts eagerly wait to see how far his ventures’ 2020 momentum can carry into the new year.

Jeff Bezos – $188 Billion

The world’s richest person has had his position well-cemented in the past year as millions turned to his flagship venture, Amazon, as a shopping outlet while lockdown measures left high street retailers shuttered.

Already accounting for half of the eCommerce market in the US, Amazon’s reach only expanded through 2020, its shares gaining more than 72% by the third quarter. Bezos, as the company’s founder and CEO with a 10.6% stake in the business, has seen his fortune increase by more than $72 billion this year. Bezos has sold small fractions of this stake on three separate occasions this year, with a 2% divestment of his shares in August netting him over $3.1 billion worth of cash. Though Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index estimates Bezos’s current net worth at $188 billion, it is worth noting that this figure was pushed over $200 billion during Amazon share peaks this year. Thus far, Bezos is the only person in history to have reached those heights.

Also contributing to Bezos’s spotlight this year was his launch of his Earth Fund, a $10 billion philanthropic initiative aimed at combating climate change by distributing funds to environment-focused organisations, and his Blue Origin aerospace company, which is now competing with SpaceX and Dynetics for a NASA lunar lander contract that will see a female astronaut landing on the moon for the first time. Should Bezos’s historic fortune continue to swell, we can expect to see equally grand aspirations in the coming years.

Zhong Shanshan – $69.9 Billion

Stepping outside of the United States, it’s hard not to recognise China’s resurgent business success over the course of 2020. In fact, while individual Chinese billionaires may not have garnered as much media attention this year as their US counterparts, the Chinese billionaire class as a whole has actually gained more wealth annually than any other country – despite being the first nation affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and undergoing some of the most severe lockdown measures in the early months.

The country’s most notable success story this year can be found in Zhong Shanshan, founder and CEO of bottled water company Nongfu Spring. Beginning the year with a fortune of $2 billion, Zhong saw his fortune increase to $51 billion upon Nongfu’s wildly successful IPO in September, which then grew to almost $70 billion later in the year. With a stake of more than 84% in the nation-spanning business, gained enormously from his company’s momentous debut.

In addition to his interest in Nongfu, Zhong also holds a controlling stake in Chinese pharmaceutical company Wantai Biological, which reaped a stock price surge of almost 2,000% this year from its work on developing a nasal spray COVID-19 vaccine. Both of these stakes have allowed Zhong to elevate his fortune beyond even Jack Ma, as he now ranks as the wealthiest person in China.

Others of Note

It would be difficult to dive into each of the thousands of billionaires worldwide whose fortunes have soared this year, but there several aside from Musk, Bezos and Zhong who have made particularly significant gains. Among them is Mark Zuckerberg, whose 29% stake in Facebook boosted his net worth by over $26 billion in spite of a series of a landmark antitrust lawsuit brought against the company by the US government, and MacKenzie Scott, who gained almost $25 billion from her Amazon shares and donated over $4.2 billion to charitable organisations as part of a pledge to give away most of her wealth during her life. This year also saw the minting of several new billionaires, including Moderna CEO Robert Langer and the three co-founders of DoorDash, both companies poised to thrive in a coronavirus-stricken society.

Though 2021 is certain to present a different business environment from 2020’s, especially as the process of COVID-19 vaccination is accelerated globally, but many business leaders – particularly those with interests in eCommerce and sustainable technologies – will likely only see their fortunes grow further. We look forward to seeing what landmarks are reached in this coming year.

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