Farrell at MarketWatch: 'Billionaires Control the Vast Majority of the World’s Wealth'; No They Don't

At MarketWatch this morning, Paul Farrell's hostility towards Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman and especially free-market capitalism boiled over. Farrell claims that capitalism "is destined to destroy the world, absent a historic paradigm shift."

The problem he describes really has nothing to do with properly practiced free-market capitalism, but is instead a combination of rampant cronyism and the abandonment of capitalism's (and society's) Judeo-Christian moral underpinnings. But that's a long discussion outside the scope of this post. This post is about the opening claim Farrell makes: "Billionaires control the vast majority of the world’s wealth." No they don't.

Let's start with ownership of wealth and then, perhaps giving Farrell more conceptual credit than he deserves, we'll move on to the more nebulous idea of "control."

The 1,326 billionaires identifed on the most recent list compiled by Forbes have a combined net worth (a term interchangeable with "wealth") of $5.4 trillion. (It takes the U.S. federal government only 1-1/2 years to spend that much.)

A chart I obtained at Statista.com (requires free registration) on "Global wealth distribution in 2012, by net worth of individuals" has the following caption (bold is mine):

This statistic shows the global wealth distribution by individual net worth in 2012. About 29 million adults own more than 1 million U.S. dollars of net worth. They make up for about 0.6 percent of global population and own about 87.5 trillion U.S. dollars, which equals 39.3 percent of global wealth.

If $87.5 trillion is 39.3 percent of global individual wealth, then the grand total must be $223 trillion ($87.5 trillion divided by .393). The identified wealth of Forbes's 1,326 billionaires of $5.4 trillion is a mere 2.4 percent of that grand total.

All right, but Farrell claims that these 1,326 individuals "control the vast majority of the world's wealth." If so, it would be a pretty amazing feat to get from 2.4 percent to a reasonable "vast majority" control benchmark of, say, 70 percent.

You can get a small part of the way there with a very shaky claim that people like Bill Gates, whose net worth per Forbes is $67 billion, should get credit for "controlling" all of Microsoft. Doing so would add about $254 billion to his net worth (current market cap of $271 billion minus Gates's current 6.4 percent ownership stake worth about $17 billion). But even that stretch from ownership to "control" only quintupled Gate's tiny share of the world's total individual wealth. If those 1,326 billionaires could somehow on average make the same demonstrated stretch from ownership to "control," they would still "control" only about 12 percent of the world's wealth. Absent conspiracy theories that would make 9/11 truthers blush, you can't get to 70 percent.

In any event, the "control" concept is nebulous to the point of being silly. For example, if Microsoft makes too many missteps, Gates's alleged "control" of the other 93.6 percent of Microsoft could quickly vanish in a shareholders' revolt ending his chairmanship.

Please also note that this entire discussion revolves around "individual wealth." How much wealth is controlled by governments worldwide? It certainly wouldn't surprise me if it's at least as much as if not far more than the $223 trillion held by individuals. Better question: How much wealth has government destroyed with corrupt, anti-capitalist policies?

If Paul Farrell wants to have a debate about worldwide wealth distribution, that's fine. But instead of claiming that 1,326 people "control the vast majority" of the world's wealth, he should tell us why it's a problem that 29 million people hold about 40 percent -- an average of 0.000001355% of the world's individual wealth per person.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

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