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Billionaires club grew by nearly a third, to 2,755, during pandemic

The number of newly minted and reissued billionaires soared last year, Forbes reported Tuesday in its annual ranking, an accumulation of personal wealth that stands in sharp contrast with the widespread economic struggles unleashed by the pandemic.

The number of billionaires on Forbes' 35th annual ranking swelled by 660, to 2,755 - a roughly 30% jump from a year ago - and 493 of them are first timers. Sven out of eight of them are richer than they were before the pandemic. Forbes calculated net worth by using stock prices and exchange rates from March 5.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with an estimated fortune of $177 billion, topped the list for the fourth year running. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk came in at No. 2 at $151 billion. The shares of both companies soared last year, largely contributing to both men's net worths and causing them to toggle for the richest man title on various lists.

Bezos, who will step down as Amazon CEO and become executive chairman this year, also owns The Washington Post and Blue Origin, an aerospace company that is developing rockets for commercial use.

A representative for Amazon declined to comment. Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dan Romanoff, a Morningstar equity research analyst who covers Amazon, said the company seized 42% of the e-commerce as the pandemic fueled a surge in online shopping.

"Amazon had a phenomenal year, from a financial perspective," he said. "They are pretty much the only game in town."

The company's revenue grew nearly 38% year-over-year in 2020, according to an earnings report filed in February, and its stock price has jumped more than 60% in the past year. On Tuesday, Amazon closed at $3,223.82, giving the company a market capitalization of $1.6 trillion.

"From the shareholder perspective, an outstanding year," he said. "And if you're Jeff Bezos . . . He owns a nontrivial stake in the company, so his shares were obviously up."

Bezos had a nearly 11% stake as of February, according to regulatory filings.

Musk owns 21% of Tesla, according to Forbes, which closed Tuesday at $691.62 and has spiked more than 530% in the past year. His rocket company, SpaceX, is now valued at $74 billion, the report said.

Rounding out the top five are Bernard Arnault ($150 billion), who oversees who oversees LVMH, an empire of 70 beauty and luxury fashion brands including Louis Vuitton and Sephora; Bill Gates ($124 billion), the Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charitable foundation; and Mark Zuckerberg ($97 billion), the CEO and co-founder of Facebook.

Eleven percent, or 316, of the billionaires on the Forbes list are women. The richest is Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, the French granddaughter of the founder of L'Oreal, the cosmetics and personal care giant, who has a net worth of $73.6 billion. Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Samuel Walton, is second at $61.8 billion. Mackenzie Scott, an author and the ex-wife of Bezos, is third, at $53 billion.

As a class, billionaires added about $8 trillion to their total net worth from last year, totaling $13.1 trillion. The United States had the most billionaires, at 724, extending a rapid rise in wealth that has not happened since the Rockefellers and the Carnegies roughly a century ago. China, including Hong Kong and Macao, had the second highest number of billionaires: 698.

Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, said in an email that the explosive acceleration of wealth among the richest of the rich has accelerated during the pandemic.

"In the United States, the top 400 wealthiest Americans now own the equivalent 18% of GDP in wealth, twice as much as in 2010 (9% of GDP). The pandemic has reinforced this trend, with a boom in top-end wealth despite the decline in economic activity," he wrote. "This trend is unlikely to be sustainable: with growing wealth concentration comes a growing concentration of economic and political power in a few hands - a dangerous evolution that governments would be wise to address."

While most of the world's wealthiest people prospered during the pandemic, thanks in part to a soaring stock prices, millions of Americans grappled with job loss, food insecurity, debt, eviction and poverty. U.S. lawmakers haven't come together on a balanced approach to narrowing the wealth gap.

Last week, President Joe Biden proposed raising corporate taxes to 28%, in addition to more tax increases and policies to ensure that companies pay domestic taxes, in a $2 trillion in jobs, climate and infrastructure spending. But his American Jobs Plan was met by opposition on both sides of the aisle, major companies, and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Biden administration's approach to corporate taxes contrasts with that of the most recent occupant of the White House. The Trump administration enacted tax cuts in 2017, lowering the corporate rate from 35% to 21%.

At the time, Trump said the cuts would fuel the U.S. economy, expanding the financial means of company executives to hire more workers and pay higher wages. But a London School of Economics report published in December 2020 found that tax cuts for the rich consistently benefited the wealthy and did not boost employment or economic growth.

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