Do Trillionaires Exist?

While a number of companies are valued at over a trillion dollars, no individual person's wealth has exceeded $1,000,000,000,000. Yet.

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Jeff Bezos
Image via Flickr / Daniel Oberhaus

Claim

As of September 2021, the wealthiest Americans have amassed fortunes of $1 trillion or more.

Rating

Context

While a number of companies have been valued at more than $1 trillion, no single person has amassed a fortune of this size. Some have predicted that the world could see its first trillionaire by 2026.

Origin

One persistent aspect of U.S. President Joe Biden’s economic proposals is that the wealthiest Americans should pay more in taxes. According to a White House report, the richest 400 Americans pay a lower tax rate than average Americans. 

Biden hit on this topic on September 24, 2021, while taking questions from reporters after he delivered remarks about the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden claimed that “trillionaires and billionaires” have done very well during the pandemic, while middle class Americans have struggled. 

Biden said:

“I said I’m running to change the dynamic of how the economy goes. I’m tired of trickle down. Trillionaires and billionaires are doing very, very well … In the middle of this crisis, hardworking people and middle class people are getting hurt.”

A video of this remark can seen in the following tweet. 

However, while the wealthiest individuals truly made financial gains during the pandemic (one study found that the world’s 2,365 billionaires saw a collective gain of $4 trillion), Biden was incorrect to use the word “trillionaire.” As of this writing, nobody has amassed a fortune over $1 trillion.

Who Is The World’s Richest Person?

As of this writing, the richest person on the planet is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with an estimated wealth just under $200 billion. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, is ranked just below Bezos on Forbes’ list of billionaires. Bernard Arnault, chief executive of Louis Vuitton, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, round out the top five with fortunes between $180 and $125 billion each. 

According to Forbes, there are approximately 2,750 people with a fortune of more than a billion dollars. Forbes writes:

It’s been a year like no other, and we aren’t talking about the pandemic. There were rapid-fire public offerings, surging cryptocurrencies and skyrocketing stock prices. The number of billionaires on Forbes’ 35th annual list of the world’s wealthiest exploded to an unprecedented 2,755–660 more than a year ago. Of those, a record high 493 were new to the list–roughly one every 17 hours, including 210 from China and Hong Kong. Another 250 who’d fallen off in the past came roaring back. A staggering 86% are richer than a year ago.

Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest for the fourth year running, worth $177 billion, while Elon Musk rocketed into the number two spot with $151 billion, as Tesla and Amazon shares surged. Altogether these billionaires are worth $13.1 trillion, up from $8 trillion in 2020. 

When Will The World See Its First Trillionaire?

While there are no current trillionaires, that could soon change. In May 2020, Comparisun, a content company that serves small businesses, estimated that Bezos would become the first trillionaire by 2026. Venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya predicted in January 2021 that the first trillionaire would be Musk. Palihapitiya did not opine on when Musk would cross the trillion dollar threshold. 

How Much Is a Trillion Dollars?

When trillions of dollars are discussed, it’s usually in the context of government spending budgets, not an individual’s wealth. During budge talks in 2012, The Associated Press attempted to put this massive figure ($1,000,000,000,000) into perspective, a writing:

Here’s one way to think of it: a trillion is a million millions.

If you paid out $1 per second, to settle a $1 million debt would take less than 12 days. To pay off $1 billion would take 32 years. Paying off $1 trillion at a dollar per second? Nearly 32,000 years.

A trillion is a 1 followed by 12 zeros, like this: 1,000,000,000,000.

A trillion square miles would cover the surface of 5,000 planet Earths.

A trillion people would be 10 times more than have ever lived (based on the Population Reference Bureau’s very rough estimate of 108 billion humans ever).

A trillion dollars is enough to give $3,195 to every man, woman and child in the United States.

But for a typical U.S. household, making $50,000 per year, to earn enough to pay off a $1 trillion debt would take 20 million years.

What About Trillion Dollar Companies?

While no individual has amassed a fortune over $1 trillion, some companies have crossed this threshold. According to a report from the global payables automation platform Tipalti, there are currently six companies — Apple, Microsoft, Saudi Aramco, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), and Facebook — that are valued at more than $1 trillion. And that list is expected to grow in the coming years. 


Sources:

AP. Putting Trillions of Dollars in Perspective. 13 Feb. 2012, https://www.cnbc.com/id/46372422.
Billionaires Got 54% Richer during Pandemic, Sparking Calls for “Wealth Tax.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/billionaire-wealth-covid-pandemic-12-trillion-jeff-bezos-wealth-tax/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

“Billionaires’ Wealth Rises to $10.2 Trillion amid Covid Crisis.” The Guardian, 7 Oct. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/07/covid-19-crisis-boosts-the-fortunes-of-worlds-billionaires.

“Forbes Billionaires 2021: The Richest People in the World.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

Grothaus, Michael. “7 Companies That Could Be Worth $1 Trillion within the next Three Years.” Fast Company, 19 Aug. 2021, https://www.fastcompany.com/90667563/these-companies-are-on-track-to-be-the-next-worth-1-trillion.

Iacurci, Greg. “America’s Richest 400 Families Pay a Lower Tax Rate than Average Taxpayer.” CNBC, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/23/americas-richest-400-families-pay-a-lower-tax-rate-than-average-taxpayer.html.

Jr, Tom Huddleston. “Could Jeff Bezos Really Become the World’s First Trillionaire by 2026?” CNBC, 15 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/15/could-jeff-bezos-really-become-the-worlds-first-trillionaire-by-2026.html.

Tracking $1 Trillion. | Approve. https://www.approve.com/tracking-trillion-dollar-valuations/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

Zetlin, Minda. “The Unexpected Reason Elon Musk Could Be World’s First Trillionaire, According to a Billionaire VC.” Inc.Com, 16 Jan. 2021, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/elon-musk-trillionaire-tesla-shares-chamath-palihapitiya.html.