Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?

Where to find the world's next billionaires.
Nov. 22 2013 11:02 AM

Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?

And can it be done?

Warren Buffett, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, Bill Gates.
Warren Buffett, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, and Bill Gates. Not a trillionaire among them.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Reuters

The global pool of wealth is bigger than ever. Credit Suisse’s 2013 Global Wealth Report puts it at $241 trillion, or 68 percent bigger than a decade ago. That’s not to say that it is being spread more evenly—10 percent of the world’s population possesses 86 percent of the money. Wealth is being created and stockpiled so fast, the report projects, that in just two generations’ time, there could be 1 billion millionaires in the world. That means roughly 1 in 5 adults could soon call themselves a millionaire.

Even billionaires aren’t the exotic species they once were. According to Forbes, there are 1,426 of them today, with more than 200 of them having reached 10-figure status in the last year alone. When Forbes started its billionaire list 25 years ago, there were only 140. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Evan Spiegel, 23-year-old co-founder of Snapchat, turning down multibillion-dollar offers from Google and Facebook even a couple of years ago. Hitting the 10-figure mark: not as cool as it used to be.

It wasn’t always so easy. When John D. Rockefeller rose from a clerk earning 50 cents a day at a produce company to become the world’s first billionaire a century ago, the fortune he amassed would have made Bill Gates swoon. In 1918, Rockefeller’s taxable income was a staggering $33 million, or slightly more than $550 million in today’s dollars. That dwarfs Warren Buffett’s 2010 tax bill, where he paid just under $7 million on $40 million in taxable income. At the time, Rockefeller’s fortune alone amounted to 1.53 percent of the U.S. economy, the equivalent of some $350 billion today.

Advertisement

But even then, Rockefeller wasn’t halfway to the next monetary milestone: a trillion dollars. No one since has even come close. Here’s a clue to just how alien a concept of personal wealth this is: So far, neither Merriam-Webster dictionary nor Oxford have acknowledged the word trillionaire. How does one become something that doesn’t exist yet?

Rockefeller’s rise to extreme wealth came from a familiar source: oil. In 1870, he founded the Standard Oil Company; by the end of that decade, Standard Oil was refining 90 percent of the oil in the U.S. The timing of Rockefeller’s ascendency was perfect: The post-war U.S. was expanding westward and petroleum became the global currency of industrialization. Rockefeller’s road to 10 figures wasn’t paved with good business sense alone; he also benefited from monopolistic practices. When the Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911, the company spun off oil predecessors into the titans of the modern industry: Conoco, Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Rothschild family had built the infrastructure of modern banking. The patriarch, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, set the family on a path pioneering modern finance, acting as a central bank to the continent, striking deals that helped finance the infrastructure of European industrialization, and making them the wealthiest family the world had ever seen.

Could the rise of Rockefeller and the Rothschilds be replicated to create a trillionaire? First, you have to actually want to make that much money. Rockefeller was driven by what he thought was a higher calling to make more and more, but also to give it away. "I believe the power to make money is a gift of God," Rockefeller said. "It is my duty to make money and even more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow men."

With his unimaginable wealth, Rockefeller pioneered a contradictory pursuit: the art of giving it away. By the end of his life, he had given away more than $500 million of his fortune, giving rise to modern philanthropy. He invested heavily in education; from his wealth, the University of Chicago was born. He poured funds into medical research to cure diseases and medical schools to train doctors.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 25 2014 3:21 PM Listen to Our November Music Roundup Hot tracks for our fall playlist, exclusively for Slate Plus members.