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A New Tally of the World's Wealthy

Tracking Inequality

A New Tally of the World’s Wealthy

Our planet’s ultra-rich have padded their fortunes to new record levels. Who says? The flaming radicals at Merrill Lynch.

By Sam Pizzigati

The New York-based Merrill Lynch and the Paris-based Capgemini financial companies want to manage more of the wealth of the world’s wealthy. To do that, the two financial giants have come to understand, they need to grab the attention of as many super-rich as they can.

How best to pull that off? Well, Forbes has already cornered the market on ranking the richest of the rich, with lists like the magazine’s annual Forbes 400. So Merrill Lynch and Capgemini have needed to go beyond lists — and they have. Merrill Lynch and Capgemini don’t list the rich. They count them.

World  WealthLast week, the two companies released their 12th annual World Wealth Report, a work that totals just how many people on our planet have reached the lofty designations of “high” and “ultra-high” net worth.

The new report covers 2007, a year that saw the beginnings of the global credit crunch — and billions in investment losses at some of the world’s most powerful investment banks. This turmoil doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent in the fortunes of the world’s most fortunate.

“High-net-worth individuals” — the World Wealth Report label for folks who hold at least $1 million in assets over and above the value of their residence — saw their numbers world-wide jump 600,000 in 2007, a 6 percent increase over the year before.

Our planet’s 10.1 million millionaires ended the year holding a combined $41 trillion in wealth, a 9 percent hike over their holdings in 2006.

But the real action continues to be at the upper end of the wealth spectrum, with the “ultras,” those individuals worth at least $30 million. Worldwide, these ultras now total 103,000, less than 0.002 percent of the world’s population.

Having trouble getting your mind around 0.002 percent? Just fill a 100,000-seat football stadium, in your mind, with a random cross-section of the world’s people. Two of those 100,000 would rank as ultra-high-net-worth individuals.

In 2007, these ultras made up a mere 1 percent of the world’s high-net-worth individual population. But they ended the year holding an astonishing 37 percent of high-net-worth individual wealth, $15 trillion in all — a jump of nearly 15 percent over ultra combined wealth holdings in 2006.

How does this $15 trillion in ultra wealth compare with the wealth of the world’s average people? Merrill Lynch and Capgemini don’t tell us, most likely because they don’t have much interest in managing average people’s money. Their World Wealth Report makes no attempt to place the wealth of the wealthy in any sort of broader context.

To get a glimpse of some broader context, we have to go back to December 2006 when the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research estimated the total household wealth of the world at $125.3 trillion, as of the year 2000.

Half the world’s 3.7 billion adults, at that time, had less than $2,161 to their name, the Institute reported. The richest 1 percent of these 3.7 billion — those worth at least $514,512 — then held 39.9 percent of the world’s wealth all by themselves, 13,000 times more than the entire bottom 10 percent.

What’s the comparable gap today, after all the global economic turbulence of the past year, the mortgage meltdown in the United States and the explosion of prices for gasoline and food commodities all over the world?

We simply do not have an exact figure, or even an educated guess. But we do know one thing, thanks to the latest figures from Merrill Lynch and Capgemini. The wealth gap between the world’s super-rich and everyone else has, since 2000, become even scarier.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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