Billionaires’ wealth is wildly out of control

Cantillon: How much Elon Musk is worth can fluctuate tens of billions within a few days

A decade ago, the world’s richest man was worth $69 billion (€63 billion). Today, $69 billion is less than the difference between what the world’s richest man is worth this week compared to what he was worth just a few weeks ago. That’s how fast the wealth of a small number of individuals, and one man in particular, is spiralling.

On Tuesday, US business magazine Forbes published its annual list of the world's billionaires – there are 2,668 of them – and said the man at the top of this elite tree, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, was worth an estimated $219 billion.

That figure was based on his wealth as of March 11th, the date that Forbes “locked in net worths” for the purposes of compiling the list.

It already seems like quite a fortune, $219 billion, for one man to have – even if it is mostly paper wealth. After surges in Tesla's share price, Musk's net worth has soared $68 billion since the estimate Forbes made a year ago, back when he was still taking second place in the rankings to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.


But Forbes also directed readers to its “real-time billionaires” list, which is updated daily. And there lay another figure: thanks largely to the electric vehicle maker’s gains since March 11th, by Tuesday, Musk was actually worth $302 billion.

Eye-watering fortune

This wasn’t even news, because Musk’s wealth first crossed the $300 billion barrier in November 2021. Since then, fluctuations of eye-watering amounts pass with only a modicum of comment. By Wednesday, he was back down to a mere $279 billion, though still well ahead of Bezos on $184 billion.

What goes up can go down. But the strange normalisation of such accelerated wealth gains in a lurching stock market shouldn’t blind us to the fact that such ever-tighter concentration of immense wealth is not only morally wrong, it is wildly out of control. We don’t need to wait for Musk to become a trillionaire to see this.

To recap, a sum of $69 billion used to be enough to make someone the wealthiest human on the planet. In 2012, that was Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim. His ranking has since slipped to 13th, but don't feel too badly for him. He was worth $81 billion at the last count. Sorry, no. That should be $91 billion.