The richest billionaires became vastly richer during pandemic, even as stocks tumbled

Disaster capitalism: Though stock market tumbles have hurt them a bit, billionaires are consolidating their wealth

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 28, 2020 6:38PM (EDT)

Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates (Salon/AP Photo)
Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates (Salon/AP Photo)

A new report reveals that American billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by $434 billion since the start of the pandemic, although at least one analysis disputes that view on the basis of stock losses.

report from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies' Program for Inequality arrived at this conclusion after analyzing the earnings of American billionaires between mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to impact the American economy, and mid-May. They found that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion to his wealth and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg added $25 billion to his wealth, putting them at the top of the list in terms of billionaires who made gains to their fortunes. When it comes to the percentage by which their fortunes have increased, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk saw his net worth increase by 48 percent to $36 billion, while Zuckerberg's wealth rose by 46 percent to $80 billion.

The top five billionaires on that list — Bezos, Zuckerberg, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett — saw their combined wealth increase by $76 billion within the two month period covered by the study.

"America's billionaires bound far ahead financially even as the rest of America was locked down during the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic," the authors of the report wrote. They juxtaposed the degree to which the wealth of the 1 percent surged with the more than 16 million Americans who have likely lost employer-provided healthcare coverage and the fact that "low-wage workers, people of color and women have suffered disproportionately in the combined medical and economic crises." The authors also condemned the so-called "Millionaires Giveaway" that was included in the coronavirus-related CARES Act  from March, one that is giving an average tax cut of $1.6 million to 43,000 millionaires and billionaires.

"The surge in billionaire wealth during a global pandemic underscores the grotesque nature of unequal sacrifice," Chuck Collins, director of the IPS Program on Inequality, wrote in the report. "While millions risk their lives and livelihoods as first responders and front line workers, these billionaires benefit from an economy and tax system that is wired to funnel wealth to the top."

Steve Goldstein of MarketWatch wrote last week that he felt the report's conclusion was misleading.

"A more logical way to think about whether billionaires got richer, or not, is to think about the performance from the Feb. 19 peak in the market, after which more investors began to get concerned by the novel virus. You then get to see who got richer even in the face of the crippling economic blow," Goldstein wrote. He concluded that "not many have," arguing that "the top 50 billionaires lost $232 billion between the market's peak and this Tuesday. If the remaining billionaires on the Forbes list lost wealth at the same roughly 12.5% rate that the top 50 experienced, that's another $200 billion–plus wiped out."

He added that there was one notable exception: Bezos.

"Jeff Bezos of AMZN, -0.38% did get richer, by $13.5 billion. Bezos and Amazon have been big winners as people across the world rely on the service for an ever-increasing percentage of their consumption," Goldstein wrote.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Aggregate Bill Gates Billionaires Coronavirus Covid-19 Jeff Bezos Larry Ellison Mark Zuckerberg Warren Buffett