The millionaire’s club isn’t what it used to be.
Time was that “being a millionaire” was a mark of unimaginable success. You’d joined the financial elite. People didn’t much discuss whether you arrived by wealth or income, because it didn’t matter much. The millionaire’s club was so small that the path to membership wasn’t worth discussing.
Millionaires aren’t as common as water, but there are plenty of them. A new study puts the worldwide total at 35 million in 2014, with about 40 percent (14 million) of them American. That’s about 5 percent of the U.S. adult population (241 million in 2014), or one in 20. Rarefied, yes; exclusive, no. After the United States, Japan has the largest concentration of millionaires with 8 percent of the world total, followed by France (7 percent), Germany (6 percent) and the United Kingdom (6 percent). At 3 percent, China ranks eighth.
The figures come from a study by Credit Suisse Research, which has been estimating worldwide personal wealth since 2010. The numbers reflect net worth, not annual income. The wealth totals add the value of people’s homes, businesses and financial assets (stocks, bonds) and subtract their loans. Doubtlessly, the number of millionaires would be much smaller if the calculations were based on income. In the study, an American with a $300,000 mortgage-free home and $700,000 in retirement accounts and financial investments qualifies as a millionaire.
On this basis, the study put global personal wealth in mid-2014 at $263 trillion, up from $117 trillion in 2000. Wealth in the United States reached $84 trillion, almost a third of the total. All of Europe, with a larger population, was virtually the same. Median wealth in the United States — meaning half of Americans were above the cutoff and half below — was $53,000, dominated by homes for many middle-class families. Japan’s total wealth was $23 trillion, but with a more equal distribution and a smaller population, its median was more than twice the American at $113,000. China’s wealth was $21 trillion and its median $7,000.
Credit Suisse did a special analysis of wealth inequality and, not surprisingly, found plenty of it. For starters, the analysis reminded readers that wealth inequality (basically, the ownership of stocks and bonds) is typically much greater than income inequality (basically, wages, salaries, dividends and interest).
In the United States, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own about 75 percent of the personal wealth, a share that’s unchanged since 2000; the income share of the top 10 percent is slightly less than 50 percent. But the study also found that wealth inequality is high in virtually all societies. Although the United States is at the upper end of the range, the low end is still stratospheric.
In 2014, the wealthiest 10 percent owned 62 percent of the personal wealth in Germany; 69 percent in Sweden; 49 percent in Japan; 64 percent in China; 51 percent in Australia; 54 percent in the United Kingdom; 53 percent in France; 72 percent in Switzerland; and 68 percent in Denmark. These steep levels, the report noted, defied large cross-country differences in tax and inheritance policies.
There is, however, one country where wealth inequality is “so far above the others that it deserves to be placed in a separate category.” This is Russia. In 2014, the wealthiest 10 percent owned 85 percent of personal wealth. They aren’t oligarchs for nothing.
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