Business

US billionaires' fortunes have skyrocketed $845 billion since March

Posted September 17, 2020 6:06 p.m. EDT

— Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of America's billionaires saw their fortunes skyrocket over the past six months during the coronavirus pandemic — while millions of Americans are now earning less than they were before the crisis began, according to a new study.

The Institute for Policy Studies' latest Billionaire Bonanza report on wealth inequality shows the 643 wealthiest Americans have raked in a whopping $845 billion in combined assets between March 18 and September 15, growing their combined wealth by 29%.

The study notes that the rapid rise wealth has increased the total net worth among the nation's top earners from $2.95 trillion to $3.8 trillion. The list of highest earners includes Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The study is based on individuals' net worth data tracked by Forbes.

Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies' Program on Inequality, who co-authored the report, said he was somewhat shocked by the figures, adding that the Covid crisis is "supercharging America's existing inequalities."

"I would have thought maybe six months into this that things would have shaken out — that everybody would take a hit," Collins told CNN Business. "The difference is stark between profits for billionaires and the widespread economic misery in our nation. It sort of dramatizes the unequal sacrifice and profiteering element of the wealth accumulation at the top."

Collins also noted the Covid economy's stark opposite effect on the average American worker.

The pandemic ushered in the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, with the unemployment rate hitting 14.7% in April before rebounding to 8.4% in August. The country is still down 11.5 million jobs since February.

Claims for unemployment benefits have come down, but remain more than four times higher than the pre-pandemic level.

Big gains for Bezos, Waltons, Page and Musk

Many of the jumps in the billionaires' assets were tied to company fortunes.

Amazon stock is up more than 60% this year. As a result, CEO Jeff Bezos, whose personal wealth is tied to Amazon stock, saw his net worth increase by $55.2 billion since February 8, according to IPS. (With total net worth of $200 billion, he is the world's wealthiest person.)

The combined net worth of Alice, Jim and Rob Walton, whose family founded Walmart, has grown by more than $60 billion since February as the retail giant's profit increased nearly 80% year over year to $6.4 billion in the second quarter of 2020.

Google co-founder Larry Page's assets have grown by more than $18 billion since February, while Tesla CEO Elon Musk's fortune increased by about $70 billion during the same period, making him the third richest person on the planet.

Six months into the pandemic, Collins has been surprised by how uneven the economic burden has been on the poor and middle class vs. the wealthy when compared to the Great Recession. He said Congress must fix what's broken with policy solutions that bolster working Americans instead of the investment class. Otherwise, he said the ongoing wealth concentration will transform America in dire, irreparable ways.

"A few people are going to have an extreme amount of power to shape the economy, politics, the media," Collins said. "None of us are going to want to live in a society like that, where your Main Street no longer has 100 shops. It just has an Amazon loading depot."

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