Courtesy of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, we bring you the "20 facts about US Inequality that Everyone Should Know". For everything one has always wanted to know about wage inequality, CEO pay, homelessness, education wage premium, gender pay gaps, occupational sex segregation, racial gaps in education, racial discrimination, child poverty, residential segregation, health insurance, inter and intragenerational income mobility, bad jobs, discouraged workers, wealth inequality, labor market deregulation, job losses, immigrants and inequality and productivity and real income, this is the definitive resource.
1. Wage Inequality
Over the last 30 years, wage
inequality in the United States has increased substantially, with the
overall level of inequality now approaching the extreme level that
prevailed prior to the Great Depression. This general characterization
of the inequality trend oversimplifies, though, the actual pattern of
change: The chart below shows that the trend at the top of the income
distribution (the “upper tail”) is not exactly the same as the trend at
the bottom of the distribution (the “lower tail”). “Lower-tail”
inequality is measured here by taking the ratio of wages at the middle
of the income distribution (i.e., the 50th percentile) to those near the
bottom of the distribution (i.e., the 10th percentile); “upper-tail”
inequality is measured by taking the ratio of wages near the top of the
distribution (i.e., the 90th percentile) to those at the middle of the
distribution (i.e., the 50th percentile of workers). We find that
lower-tail inequality rose sharply in the 1980s and contracted somewhat
thereafter, while upper-tail inequality has increased steadily since
Men's wage inequality
Economic Policy Institute. 2011. “Upper Tail” inequality growing
steadily: Men's wage inequality, 1973-2009. Washington, D.C.: Economic
Policy Institute. May 11, 2011.
2. CEO pay
Recent decades have seen a clear
increase in the difference between CEO compensation and that of the
average worker in manufacturing or “production.” CEOs in 1965 made 24
times more than the average production worker, whereas in 2009 they made
185 times more. This chart shows how this ratio between the
compensation of CEOs and production workers took off in the 1980s.
U.S. CEO pay in relation to the average production worker's compensation
Source: Economic Policy Institute. 2011. More compensation heading to
the very top: Ratio of average CEO total direct compensation to average
production worker compensation, 1965-2009. Washington, D.C.: Economic
Policy Institute. May 16, 2011.
There are 750,000 Americans who
are homeless on any given night, with one in five of them considered
chronically homeless. The ranks of the sheltered homeless include
disproportionate numbers of males, blacks, middle-aged people (i.e.,
ages 31-50), veterans, and disabled.
Who is Homeless?
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2007. The Annual
Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. See
4. Education Wage Premium
Only college graduates
have experienced growth in median weekly earnings since 1979 (in real
terms). High school dropouts have, by contrast, seen their real median
weekly earnings decline by about 22 percent.
Median weekly earnings of full-time workers (workers 25 years old & older, 2006 dollars)
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Charting the U.S. Labor Market in 2006; see
http://www.bls.gov/cps/labor2006/home.htm. Updated to 2009 by Steve
Hipple of the Bureau of Labor Statistics; see
5. Gender Pay Gaps
Throughout much of the 20th
century, the average woman earned about 60% of what the average man
earned. Starting in the late 1970s, there was a substantial increase in
women’s relative earnings, with women coming to earn about 80% of what
men earned. This historic rise plateaued in 2005 and, since then, the
pay gap has remained roughly unchanged.
Women's earnings as a percent of men's (full-time wage and salary workers, annual averages)
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2010. Highlights
of Women’s Earnings in 2009. Report 1017. See
6. Occupational Sex Segregation
Women and men tend to work in very different occupations. And overall “men’s jobs” are better paid than “women’s jobs.”
Gendered occupations and unequal rewards
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2009. Highlights
of Women’s Earnings in 2008. Report 1017. See
7. Racial Gaps in Education
rates are least among whites and highest among Hispanics, while college
enrollment rates are least among blacks and highest among whites. The
high-school dropout rate has grown more similar among these three
groups, while the college enrollment rate has grown more sharply
High school dropout percentage (among persons 16-24 years old) and college enrollment percentage (among high school graduates)
Source: The Digest of Education Statistics 2008, National Center for Education Statistics.
8. Racial Discrimination
continues to be in the labor market. An experiment carried out in
Chicago and Boston during 2001 and 2002 shows that resumes with
“white-sounding” names, whether male or female, were much more likely to
result in call backs for interviews than were those with
“black-sounding” names (even though the resumes were otherwise
Interview call-back rate for women with “white” names and “black” names
Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg
More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” American Economic Review 94(4):
9. Child Poverty
In the United States, 21.9
percent of all children are in poverty, a poverty rate second only to
that of Mexico’s (among rich nations).
Relative Poverty Rates in Twenty-One Rich Nations at the Turn of the Century for Children
Source: Timothy M. Smeeding, 2008. “Poorer by Comparison.” Pathways 3-5.
10. Residential Segregation
We all know that the
rich in the United States tend not to live in the same neighborhoods as
the poor. But did you know that such residential segregation is on the
rise? The graph below reveals that, between 1970 and 2000, there has
been a sizable increase in segregation. We show this result by
measuring (a) how likely it is for households in the top fifth of the
income distribution to live with households not in the top fifth (in
1970 and 2000), and (b) how likely it is for households in the bottom
fifth of the income distribution to live with households not in the
bottom fifth (again in 1970 and 2000).
Claude S. Fischer, Gretchen Stockmayer, Jon Stiles, Michael Hout. 2004.
“Distinguishing the Geographic Levels and Social Dimensions of U.S.
Metropolitan Segregation, 1960-2000.” Demography 41(1): 37-59.
11. Health Insurance
In 2007, 8.1 million children
under 18 years old were without health insurance. Children in poverty
and Hispanic children were more likely to be uninsured.
Uninsured Children by Poverty Status, Age, and Race and Hispanic Origin (percent)
U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports. 2008. Income, Poverty,
and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007. See
12. Intragenerational Income Mobility
income mobility refers to the rate at which a person moves to a higher
or lower income level during her or his work career. More than half of
those individuals in the bottom income quintile in 1994 remained there
10 years later, and less than 4 percent reached the top quintile.
Relative Mobility Out of the Bottom Income Quintile (individuals age 25 to 44)
Gregory Acs and Seth Zimmerman. 2008. U.S. Intragenerational Economic
Mobility From 1984 to 2004. The Urban Institute. See
13. Bad Jobs
“Bad jobs” are typically considered
those that pay low wages and do not include access to health insurance
and pension benefits. As shown here, about 10% of full-time workers are
in low-wage jobs, about 30% don't have health insurance, and about 40%
don't have pensions. The graph also shows that the likelihood of being
in a bad job is much worse for part-time workers, for on-call and day
laborers, and for those working for temporary help agencies.
Employment relations and job characteristics
Arne L. Kalleberg, Barbara F. Reskin, Ken Hudson. 2000. “Bad Jobs in
America: Standard and Nonstandard Employment Relations and Job Quality
in the United States.” American Sociological Review 65(2): 256-278.
14. Discouraged Workers
Discouraged workers are
persons not currently looking for work because they believe that there
are no jobs available for them. The number of discouraged workers in the
U.S. increased sharply during the current recession, rising to 717,000
in the first quarter of 2009, a 70-percent increase from the first
quarter of 2008. Relative to their share of the labor force, young
people, blacks, and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics and men were
over-represented among discouraged workers.
Unemployed and marginally attached workers in first quarter of 2009 (as share of the civilian population)
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2009. Ranks of
Discouraged Workers and Others Marginally Attached to the Labor Force
Rise During Recession. See http://www.bls.gov/opub/ils/pdf/opbils74.pdf.
15. Wealth Inequality
The ownership of wealth
among households in the U.S. became somewhat more concentrated since the
1980s. The top 10% of households controlled 68.2 percent of the total
wealth in 1983 and 73.1% of the total wealth in 2007.
Concentration of wealth in the U.S. between 1983 and 2007
Source: Edward N. Wolff, 2010. “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in
the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze – An Update
to 2007.” Levy Economics Institute Working Paper No. 589.
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute.
16. Intergenerational Income Mobility
income mobility can be measured by calculating the rate at which
individuals move to income quintiles that are different that that of
their families of origin. The proportion of sons who remained in the
bottom quartile declined between 1961 and 1972 and stayed the same
Family Background and Income in Adulthood (individuals age 30 to 59)
Harding, David, Christopher Jencks, Leonard M. Lopoo, and Susan E.
Mayer. 2008. “Family Background and Incomes in Adulthood.” Pp. 505-515
in Social Stratification: Class, Race and Gender in Sociological
Perspective, edited by David B. Grusky. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
17. Deregulation of the Labor Market
percentage of all wage and salary workers who are union members has
declined from 24% in 1973 to 12.4% in 2008. The decline in the private
sector was steeper than the decline in the public sector. At the same
time as union membership declined, the real value of the minimum wage
also fell by 25% in the 1980s, leading to a weakening influence of the
minimum wage on the low-wage labor market. These two developments in
combination may be understood as the foundation of the newly
“deregulated” U.S. labor market.
Private-sector union membership and real minimum wage, 1973-2008
Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson. Union Membership and Coverage
Database from the CPS. See http://www.unionstats.com;
18. Job Losses
Employment fell by 3.1 million jobs
during 2008. The job losses were more widespread and severe than
during the previous two recessions in 1990-1991 and 2001 and in fact the
fall in employment is comparable to that in the deeper recession of
Job losses in four recessions, percent decline in employment from peak month
Laura A. Kelter. 2009. Substantial Job Losses in 2008. Monthly Labor
Review. See: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2009/03/art2full.pdf18
19. Immigrants and Inequality
Does immigration to
the U.S. bring highly-skilled workers into the labor force or unskilled
workers? The answer is both! The education distribution below
indicates that immigrants are concentrated in both tails of the skill
Characteristics of immigrant education enrollment in 2000
David Card. 2009. Immigration and Inequality. Center for research and
analysis of immigration. See http://eprints.ucl.ac.uk/14325/1/14325.pdf
20. Productivity and Real Income
We are a richer
country overall because of a spectacular rise in labor productivity.
But who has profited from this rise? Although the growth of labor
productivity has expanded total national income, the real income and
wages of the median worker have at the same time stagnated.
Labor productivity and income of the median worker
Source: Bureau if Economic Analysis and U.S. Census Bureau
A slightly more updated and nuanced analysis, looking at the top of America's wealth pyramid was penned byZero Hedge back in May 2010, titled: "Visualizing America's Tax Inequality, The Wealthiest 11,000 People, And Why Obama's Campaign Promises Mean 77%-91% Taxes For The Richest" - for those curious about the non-linear scaling affecting those for whom money does not matter...
A summary of the details:
- 40% of US households make below $36,000
- 60% make below $57,000
- 80% make below $91,750
- 95% making below $165k
- 98% making less than $250,000
make less than $5 million and 0.01% make more than $5 million (with a
very special category for those making over $1.5 billion: "Hedge Fund
- 1% of society makes 17.3% of the income,
- The average income in the top 0.01%, or 11,000 households, is $35,473,200, and a minimum of $8,579,000
average income in the the next 99,000 households, or 99.9%-99.99% of
the population makes an average $4,699,500, and a minimum of $1,532,400
average income in the next 451,000 households, or 99.5%-99.9% of the
population makes and average $1,206,200, and a minimum of $482,400
average income in the next 564,000 households, or 99$-99.5% of the
population makes and average $269,800, and a minimum of $126,300
- ...and so forth.
Here are the charts that capture the stratification of America, and its new "nobility" class, courtesy of Visualizing Economics:
First - the peasants, and the clergy:
Next, the nobility:
a little bit more, on those who, unless they manage to stop Obama from
following through on his plans, are about to be taxed between 77% and
And after looking at the US, here is the same data in a global perspective from a post we wrote back in 2010 titled: "A Detailed Look At Global Wealth Distribution"
By now it should be common knowledge to everyone that in American
society, the top wealthiest 1 percentile controls all the political
power, holds half the wealth, and pays what is claimed to be the bulk of
the taxes (despite mile wide tax loopholes and Swiss bank accounts).
The rest of the population is merely filler, programmed to buy every
latest self-cannibalizing iteration of the iPad/Pod while never again
paying their mortgage and brainwashed to watch 2 hours of prime time TV
commercials to keep it distracted from the fact that the last time
America was a democracy was around the time the Wright brothers were
arguing the pros and cons of frequent flier programs. So far so good.
But what about the rest of the world? How is wealth stratified in a
global perspective? Where do the "rich" live? What kind of wealth is
controlled by various countries? Where are the Ultra High Net Worth
people? For answers to all these questions, and much more, confirming
that just like in America, the wealthiest 0.5% control over 35% of world
wealth, Credit Suisse has compiled and released its latest "Global
Wealth Report." The findings are summarized here.
The first figure
shows world wealth by region. The US, with its wealth of about $50
trillion, accounts for 25% of total world wealth, which at last check
was about $200 trillion. And yes, Europe as a region has a slightly
greater wealth portion (32%) than does America (31%).
it comes to geographic distribution, it is to be expected that North
America will have the greatest proportion of people in the ultra wealthy
category. Indeed, the chart below confirms this.
down into asset composition in various countries, it becomes obvious
why the Fed is so focused on keeping the stock market high. With America
being the wealthiest country in the world, and the bulk of US wealth
held in financial assets, offset by a material amount of debt, which
confirms that a deflationary spiral would be the end for the "wealth
effect" so desired by Ben Bernanke. More from CS: "Consider first the
relative importance of financial versus non-financial assets, and the
size of debt. Expressed as a percentage of gross household assets, the
pattern clearly differs markedly between poorer and richer countries and
regions. In developing countries (see Figure 1), for example India and
Indonesia, it is common for 80% or more of total assets to be held in
the form of non-financial assets, largely housing and farms. A high
proportion of real property is also evident in transition countries in
Europe, reflecting in part the wholesale privatization of housing in the
1990s. As countries develop and grow, the importance of non-financial
assets tends to decline, so that the share in China, for instance, is
now close to half. In the richest countries, financial assets typically
account for more than half of household wealth. There are interesting
exceptions to this general pattern. Recent robust house price rises have
propelled the share of non-financial assets above 60% in France and
some other major European countries. South Africa, on the other hand, is
an outlier in the developing world, with exceptionally high holdings of
financial assets: the figure of 80% exceeds the share found in both the
United States and Japan." In other words, the more "developed" the
world becomes, the greater the amount of wealth tied into the
perpetuation of the Ponzi lies. Small wonder why so few in charge are
willing to actually do anything that changes the status quo.
Next, it is time to drill down in the specific composition of the financial assets.
2 provides more detail, showing the breakdown of financial assets into
three categories: currency and deposits, equities (all shares and other
equities held directly by households), and other financial assets for
selected countries. To add further detail, in most countries the
reserves of life insurance companies and pension funds form the largest
component of “other financial assets.” The composition of financial
assets differs considerably across countries, especially with regard to
the importance of shares and other equities. One interesting trend we
note is that equities are not always a large component of household
financial wealth, even in countries with very active financial markets.
In the United Kingdom and Japan, for example, equities account for just
13% and 9% of total financial assets respectively. In contrast, they
make up 37% and 43% of financial assets in Sweden and the USA,
respectively. Broadly speaking, the relative importance of currency and
deposits falls as that of bonds and equities increases. On the other
hand, the portfolio share of “other financial assets” does not vary a
lot, staying in the range of about 40%–45%. However, when we come to the
UK, Japan and Colombia, which have the lowest portfolio share of
equities, the pattern breaks down. The UK has a moderate currency and
deposits share, but the largest “other financial assets” share,
reflecting large life insurance and pension reserves. Colombia also has
more in the form of “other financial assets” than is typical. Japan, on
the other hand, which has a strong tradition of saving in deposit form,
has a very large currency and deposits share and only a 35% share of
“other financial assets.”
interesting detour looks at gender distribution for asset holders in
the US and the UK. As the chart below shows, in the UK women appear to
hold more risky assets than men.
at the history of global wealth per adult, net worth peaked just before
the first ponzi/credit/housing bubble popped, confirming that a major
portion of the then-record $50K/adult net wealth was imaginary. Yet it
may have far more to drop: as CS says, "despite the financial crisis,
the past decade has in fact been a relatively benign period for
household wealth accumulation. Global net worth per adult rose 43% from
USD 30,700 in the year 2000 to USD 43,800 by mid-2010. Since the number
of adults increased from 3.6 billion to 4.4 billion over this period,
aggregate household wealth rose by 72%. One important factor
here was the depreciation of the dollar against most major currencies,
which accounts for part of the rise in dollar-denominated values, but
average net worth still increased by 24% when exchange rates are held
constant." The next question is how much latent dollar
devaluation has been accrued to this point and how much more is due to
only gradually emerge.
next chart is rather self-explanatory. The richest nations, with wealth
in 2010 above USD 100,000 per adult, are found in North America,
Western Europe, and among the rich Asian-Pacific and Middle East
countries. They are topped by Switzerland, Norway, Australia, Singapore
and France, each of which records wealth per adult above USD 250,000.
Average wealth in other major economies such as the USA, Japan, the
United Kingdom and Canada also exceeds USD 200,000.
And some more detail on the various wealth regions:
wealth: The band of wealth from USD 25,000 to USD 100,000 covers many
recent EU entrants (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Estonia, Cyprus) and important Latin American countries
(Mexico, Brazil, Chile), along with a number of Middle Eastern nations
(Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain).
Frontier wealth: The main
transition nations outside the EU, including China, Russia, Belarus,
Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, fall in the USD 5,000 to USD 25,000
range, together with some of their Far East neighbors (Indonesia,
Thailand) and most of Latin America (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, El
Salvador). The group also contains a number of African nations at the
southernmost tip (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia) and on the
Mediterranean coast (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt).
the category below USD 5,000 comprises almost all of South Asia,
including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and almost all of
Central and West Africa.
Next is a pie chart of with a detailed break down of wealth distribution by region.
Credit Suisse provides a look at geographic wealth distribution by decile:
be among the wealthiest half of the world, an adult needs only USD
4,000 in assets, once debts have been subtracted. However, each adult
requires more than USD 72,000 to belong to the top 10% of global wealth
holders and more than USD 588,000 to be a member of the top 1%. The
bottom half of the global population together possess less than 2% of
global wealth, although wealth is growing fast for some members of this
segment. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% own 83% of the world’s
wealth, with the top 1% alone accounting for 43% of global assets.
Figure 4 shows how the regions of the world are represented amongst the
wealth deciles. Unsurprisingly for example, North America and Europe
together make up the lion’s share of the top wealth decile (10%). China
has relatively few representatives at the very top and bottom of the
global wealth distribution, but dominates the middle section, supplying
more than a third of those in deciles 4–8. The sizeable presence of
China in the middle section reflects not only its population size and
moderate average wealth level, but also relatively low wealth
inequality. China’s position in the global picture has shifted upwards
in the past decade as a consequence of a strong record of growth,
rising asset values and the appreciation of the renminbi relative to
the US dollar. China already has more people in the top 10% of global
wealth holders than any country except for the USA, Japan and Germany,
and is poised to overtake both Germany and Japan in the near future.
Next is the chart that everyone has seen as it pertains to America,
but few have seen in terms of the entire world. Per CS, Figure 1 shows
“The global wealth pyramid” in striking detail. It is made up of a solid
base of low wealth holders with upper tiers occupied by fewer and fewer
people. We estimate that 3 billion individuals – more than two thirds
of the global adult population – have wealth below USD 10,000. A further
billion adults (24% of the world population) are placed in the USD
10,000–100,000 range, leaving 358 million adults (8% of the world
population) with assets above USD 100,000. Figures for mid-2010
indicate that 24.2 million adults are above the threshold for dollar
millionaires. While they make up less than 1% of the global adult
population, they own more than a third of global household wealth. More
specifically, individuals with wealth above USD 50 million are estimated
to number 81,000 worldwide.
Some more details on the various tiers of the pyramid:
Bottom of the pyramid
various tiers of the wealth pyramid have distinctive characteristics.
The base level is spread broadly across countries. It has significant
membership in all regions of the world, and spans a wide variety of
family circumstances. The upper wealth limit of USD 10,000 is a modest
sum in developed countries, excluding almost all adults who own houses,
with or without a mortgage. Nevertheless, a surprisingly large number of
individuals in advanced countries have limited savings or other assets.
high proportion are young people with little opportunity or interest in
accumulating wealth. In fact, limited amounts of tangible assets
combined with credit card debts and student loans lead many young people
to record negative net worth. In Denmark and Sweden, for example, 30%
of the population report negative wealth. This is an important and often
overlooked segment, not least in the context of the credit crisis.
wealth is also a common feature of older age groups, particularly for
those individuals suffering ill health and exposed to high medical
bills. In fact, the means testing applied to many state benefits,
especially contributions to the cost of residential homes, provides an
incentive to shed wealth. Nevertheless, relatively few people in rich
countries have net worth below USD 10,000 throughout their adult life.
In essence, membership of the base section of the global wealth pyramid
is a transient, lifecycle phenomenon for most citizens in the developed
The situation in low-income countries is different. More
than 90% of the adult population in India and Africa fall in this band;
in many low-income African countries, the fraction of the population is
close to 100%. However, the cost of living is usually much lower. For a
resident of India, for instance, assets of USD 10,000 would be
equivalent to about USD 30,000 to a resident of the United States. In
much of the developing world, this is enough to own a house or land –
albeit possibly with uncertain property rights – and to have a
comfortable lifestyle by local standards.
Middle of the pyramid
billion adults in the USD 10,000–100,000 range form the middle class
from the perspective of global wealth. With USD 32 trillion in total
wealth, it certainly carries economic weight. This tier has the most
regionally balanced membership, although China now contributes almost a
third of the total. The wealth range would cover the median person over
most of his adult life in high income countries. In middle income
countries it would apply to a middle class person in middle age.
However, in low-income countries only those in the top decile qualify,
restricting membership to significant landowners, successful
businessmen, professionals and the like.
High segment of the pyramid
we consider the “high” segment of the wealth pyramid – the group of
adults whose net worth exceeds USD 100,000 – the regional composition
begins to change. With almost 358 million adults worldwide, this group
is far from exclusive. But the typical member of the group is very
different in different parts of the world. In high income countries, the
threshold of USD 100,000 is well within the reach of middle-class
adults once careers have been established. In contrast, residents from
low-income countries would need to belong to the top percentile of
wealth holders, so only the exceptionally successful, well endowed or
well connected qualify.
The regional contrast shows up in the
fact that North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions account for
92% of the global membership of the USD 100,000+ group, with Europe
alone home to 39% of the total. As far as individual countries are
concerned, the membership ranking depends on three factors: the
population size, the average wealth level, and wealth inequality within
the country. Only 15 countries host more than 1% of the global
membership. The USA comes top with 23% of the total. All three factors
reinforce each other in this instance: a large population combining with
high mean wealth and an unequal wealth distribution. Japan is a strong
runner-up, the only country at present to seriously challenge the
hegemony of the USA in the global wealth ranking. Although its relative
position has declined since the year 2000 due to lackluster stock market
and housing market performance, Japan is still home to 15% of
individuals with wealth above USD 100,000.
Top of the pyramid
the top of the pyramid, we find the world’s millionaires, where we
again witness a slightly different pattern of membership. The proportion
of members from the United States rises sharply to 41%, and the share
of members from outside of the North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific
regions falls to just 6%. The relative positions of most countries move
downwards, but there are exceptions. The French share is estimated to
double to 9%, while Sweden and Switzerland are each now credited with
more than 1% of the global membership.
And next, is a detailed look at the very top of the pyramid: those individuals which have over 1 million in net worth.
assemble details of the pattern of wealth holdings above USD 1 million
requires a high degree of ingenuity. The usual sources of data –
official statistics and sample surveys – become increasingly incomplete
and unreliable at high wealth levels. A growing number of publications
have followed the example of Forbes magazine by constructing “rich
lists,” which attempt to value the assets of particular named
individuals at the apex of the wealth pyramid. But very little is known
about the global pattern of asset holdings in the high net worth (HNW –
greater than USD 1 million) and ultra high net worth (UHNW – from USD 50
million upwards) range.
We bridge this gap by exploiting
well-known statistical regularities in the top wealth tail. Using only
data from traditional sources in the public domain yields a pattern of
global wealth holdings in the USD 250,000 to USD 5 million range, which,
when projected onward, predicts about 1000 dollar billionaires for
mid-2010. Although not exactly comparable, this number is very close to
the figure of 1,011 billionaire holdings reported by Forbes magazine for
February 2010. Making use of the regional affiliation recorded in rich
lists allows us to merge the top tail details with data on the level
and distribution of wealth derived from traditional sources in order to
generate a regional breakdown of HNW and UHNW individuals. At this time,
we do not attempt to estimate the pattern of holdings across particular
countries, except China and India which are treated as separate
regions. However, as a rule of thumb, residents of the USA account for
about 90% of the figure for North America.
The base of the wealth
pyramid is occupied by people from all countries of the world at
various stages of their lifecycle. In contrast, HNW and UHNW individuals
are heavily concentrated in particular regions and countries, but the
members tend to share a much more similar lifestyle, often
participating in the same global markets for high coupon consumption
items. The wealth portfolios of individuals are also likely to be
similar, dominated by financial assets and, in particular, equity
holdings in public companies traded in international markets. For these
reasons, using official exchange rates to value assets is more
appropriate, rather than using local price levels to compare wealth
Our figures for mid-2010 indicate that there were 24.5
million HNW individuals with wealth from USD 1 million to USD 50
million, of whom the vast majority (22 million) fall in the USD 1–5
million range. North America dominates the residence ranking, accounting
for 11.1 million HNW individuals (45% of the total). Europe accounts
for 7.8 million (31.7%) and 4.1 million reside in Asia-Pacific countries
other than China and India. We estimate that there are now more than
800,000 HNW individuals in China, each worth between USD 1 million and
USD 50 million (3.3% of the global total). India, Africa and Latin
America together host the remaining 740,000 HNW individuals (3.0% of the
take home message is that the wealthiest people in the world have the
bulk of their wealth entrenched in the current system and any dramatic
overhaul or reset of the status quo will be met by the stiff resistance
of those who can summon fleet of jets, private armies, and even Fed
chairmen on a whim. Whether anyone will have the wherewithal to confront
the broken system under such conditions remains to be seen.