Thursday, 31 December 2015

Who Will Be The World's First Trillionaire?


We've all thought about it- will, at some point, an individual's wealth surpass $1,000,000,000,000?


Needless to say, the first trillionaire on Earth will be MASSIVELY wealthy. A trillion dollars means 1,000 x billion dollars- or a million x million dollars. If their cash was stacked in hypothetical $1000 bills, it would extend over 63 miles vertically. An 80 year old trillionaire will have earned, on average, more than $34 million every day of his life. So yeah, it's a massive amount of money (you can read more fascinating trillion dollar facts here).


But, it is such a massive figure that some are sceptical that a single individual worth over a trillion dollars will ever walk the face of the earth. The wealthiest man in the world right now, Bill Gates, would have to multiply his current net wealth around 14 times to reach such a trillion dollars.

Despite the daunting mass of such a figure, it is very reasonable to think that we may have a trillionaire within the next 100 years or so.


Rockefeller's net worth (in today's terms)
was over $350bn- over 4 times that of Bill Gates.
Let's look at the past. The first ever millionaire was John Jacob Astor, a 19th century fellow who profited massively off his monopoly of the fur trade, and later his ventures into real estate. Then came John Davison Rockefeller Sr., the world's first billionaire and on record the wealthiest man to ever have lived, with a wealth today that would be over 4 times that of Bill Gates. Rockefeller was an oil man- like Astor, a monopolist who at his peak controlled 90% of the oil in the USA.

So a common theme between these past juggernauts is monopoly- almost total domination, and complete control over their respective markets. This theme continues today (Bill Gates created the (ex?) monopolist Microsoft), and is very likely to continue when it comes to the first trillionaire. But what will he/she monopolise?

Astor created a monopoly of fur coats in a USA in its infancy of independence, Rockefeller capitalised on the oil boom of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and Gates played a key roll in bringing the personal computer to the mass market. These people did not become massively wealthy by following other businesses of the time, but by taking charge and carving out their own markets, and the first trillionaire will have to do this on an even larger scale. They will need to be a complete game-changer.

The trillionaire could produce key developments in the technology arena. Revolutionise key areas of our infrastructure- like transport (think autonomous technology), or education. But it's very difficult to speculate what particular area they will profit from- their vision will have to be such that they produce something we may not even think about right now.

Asteroids such as this have been estimated by some to be
home to raw materials worth up to $5.4 trillion.
An interesting proposition is that the first trillionaire will be the first to effectively capitalise on something we've always lived with, but been unable to grasp fully- space. In his 1997 book Mining the Sky, Professor of Planetary Science John Lewis makes the claim that "we can relieve Earth of its energy problem, make astronomical amounts of raw materials available, and raise the living standard of people worldwide" by effectively taking advantage of the wealth of materials that can be found in space, whether on planets or bodies like asteroids. Just like Rockefeller worked to capitalise on a growing but young oil industry in the US to revolutionise energy consumption, the first trillionaire could be the person who leads the revolution of our own energy consumption by venturing into space.

A far less thrilling but arguably more realistic prospect, however, is that the first trillionaire is just a current billionaire who becomes a trillionaire as his wealth accumulates and expands, thanks to investments or just ordinary inflation. The wealthiest individuals around the world are already becoming exponentially richer, and for people like Bill Gates it could just be a waiting game- albeit one with the constraint of lifespan.

Let's assume Gates lives until he's 100 (40 more years). From his current wealth of just under $80bn, he would require a 6.5% annual interest rate to become a trillionaire by his 100th year. So it is possible that he will become a trillionaire- but unlikely, considering recent US interest rates have barely been exceeding 1%.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg-
could he be one of the first trillionaires?
However, keeping money in financial institutions could enable younger billionaires, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, to become trillionaires by the time they reach old age- especially considering the extra time allowed for interest rates to increase. Again, assuming a life of 100 years, Zuckerberg would require a 4.9% rate for his $36bn wealth to grow to a trillion.

Gates and co. could make a faster journey to the top by investing all of his $80bn correctly- but again, for a man who plans to give most of his money to charity, this is unlikely to happen. Investing such a large proportion of their wealth would probably be an unlikely move for Gates' fellow billionaires to take.

So there are two scenarios- either a trillionaire rises fantastically from some groundbreaking innovation that they are able to quickly monopolise, or a trillionaire rises less glamourously thanks to favourable interest rates and/or long term investments.

The first scenario would indeed be a spectacular event, but dwelling on the second makes you realise that perhaps the first trillionaire will not be such an iconic figure. Inflation raises not just the nominal income of the wealthiest, but it raises everyone's incomes. That's why earning a 5-figure salary is not the big deal now that it was a century ago, and why earning a 6-figure salary in 2115 will probably not be as valued as earning it now in 2015. The first trillionaire could just arise from the wave of inflation that raises everyone's wealth on paper- $1,000,000,000,000, after all, is just a number, not a real wealth indicator.

So, at the end of the day, becoming a trillionaire on paper might not be as big as a deal as we think it is now.

Anyway, it could be argued that thousands of people have already become trillionaires- in a country called Zimbabwe, I've heard they even used to print bank notes in the trillions.


Mohammad Lone Editor