Who will be the world’s first trillionaire?

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has the best shot at boosting his net worth to $1 trillion because he is still young at 52, finance expert says

(From left) Billionaires Bernard Arnault, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk could reach the $1 trillion net worth mark. AFP / Reuters
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Who wants to be a trillionaire? With around 2,700 billionaires in the world today, someone has to make the leap, sooner or later.

We are only just getting used to the notion that a company can be worth a trillion dollars, but it is possible that the net worth of one of the world's ultra-rich business titans will reach this historic milestone at some stage.

Many will find the concept obscene. Charity Oxfam International says the five richest people have more than doubled their collective wealth since 2020, at a time when five billion have grown poorer.

"At current rates, it will take 230 years to end poverty, but we could have our first trillionaire in 10 years," Oxfam says in the report.

Yet, Jason Hollands, managing director of wealth manager Evelyn Partners, argues that a small band of fabulously wealthy people are not the cause of global poverty.

“The likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are highly successful because they have built businesses that cater to human needs and wants. They’ve also created huge amounts of jobs.”

The world’s 10 wealthiest became nearly $500 billion richer in 2023, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. None are close to having a $1 trillion, but the race is on. So, who is the likeliest winner?

1. Elon Musk: $199 billion

As the world's richest man, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk is the centibillionaire most likely to grow his net worth to $1 trillion - despite dropping out of the exclusive $200 billion club just last week.

His personal wealth jumped $92 billion to $229 billion last year, according to Bloomberg, an increase of 67.2 per cent.

If Mr Musk could maintain that rate of growth, he would be a trillionaire by 2028, but this year has been bumpy as Tesla faces tough competition from Chinese electric car manufacturers.

Its shares have fallen by about 25 per cent this month, shrinking Mr Musk’s wealth to $199 billion by January 26.

However, Mr Musk still has the best shot at becoming the world’s first trillionaire because he is still relatively young at 52, Mr Hollands says.

Another of his playthings, space exploration company SpaceX, is valued at $175 billion.

“It is privately owned but would be the biggest IPO in history if it floats, further boosting his wealth,” Mr Hollands says.

However, Mr Musk has been burning money on media platform X, formerly Twitter.

It has lost 71 per cent of its value since he bought it for $44 billion in October 2022, a loss of about $30 billion.

As Mr Musk has pointed out, measuring his wealth by stock holdings is a “silly metric”.

“It’s not just a giant pile of cash. I really just own stock in the companies that I was instrumental in creating.”

Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, highlights another inherent flaw in rich list surveys.

“They count assets but don’t look at the other side of the personal balance sheet, such as debts, liabilities and borrowings.”

2. Jeff Bezos: $184 billion

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, 60, ended 2023 as the third-richest person in the world with a net worth of $177 billion, according to Bloomberg.

By January 26, he had claimed second spot with $184 billion, helped by a 6.13 per cent increase in Amazon’s share price so far this year.

Mr Bezos has come a long way since founding the online retail company out of a Seattle garage in 1994 and although he is no longer the chief executive, he remains its biggest shareholder with 998 million shares, slightly less than 10 per cent of the total.

Amazon is expanding beyond online retail into cloud computing and digital streaming, while Mr Bezos is also investing $1 billion a year in reusable space rocket project Blue Origin.

While many billionaires risk blowing their chances of making a trillion by giving huge sums to charity, Mr Bezos has yet to sign the Giving Pledge, a commitment started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010, that calls on the world’s wealthiest people to pledge at least half of their wealth to philanthropy.

His 2019 divorce from MacKenzie Scott is said to have cost him $38 billion, including 4 per cent of Amazon’s shares, plus he spends lavishly, including $500 million on a super yacht.

Yet, he could be a dark horse here.

3. Bernard Arnault: $182.9 billion

Bernard Arnault, 74, chairman of French luxury group LVMH, was the world’s wealthiest person until Mr Musk raced past him last year.

The only non-US citizen in the list of top 10 billionaires, he ended 2023 with a net worth of $179 billion, and is a little richer today after LVMH reported a 13 per cent organic revenue growth to €86.2 billion ($93.4 billion) on January 25.

LVMH controls numerous prestigious brands, including Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy, Tiffany & Co, Christian Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Tag Heuer and Bulgari.

If China and other emerging markets start growing again, Mr Arnault could reclaim the top spot, making him the front-runner in the $1 trillion stakes.

4. Bill Gates: $144 billion

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, 68, could have been the world’s first trillionaire, but seems more driven by giving money away than making it.

Microsoft is now the biggest company in the world, with a valuation of $2.96 trillion. The share price is up 293 per cent over the past five years and a mind-bending 403,830 per cent since its IPO in 1986.

Mr Gates has whittled down his original 49 per cent stake to a mere 1.38 per cent, amounting to 103 million shares.

At today’s price of around $404, they’re currently worth almost $44 billion.

Had he held on to his shares, he would be worth a cool $1.5 trillion.

5. Mark Zuckerberg: $142 billion

Only 18 months ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 39, was on his uppers, as Facebook user numbers stalled and his foray into the metaverse backfired.

In December 2022, Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms suffered the biggest one-day stock market sell-off in history, as a drop of 26 per cent wiped $251.3 billion off its value.

Mr Zuckerberg ended the year $80 billion poorer and a lowly 25th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index after his net worth slumped to $44 billion.

Top 10 richest people in the world in 2023 – in pictures

Few expected a Zuckerberg comeback, but Meta shares were the S&P 500's second-best performer in 2023 after Nvidia, up almost 200 per cent.

He is unlikely to repeat that, with many analysts claiming US technology stocks are overvalued, but Mr Zuckerberg has one factor in his favour.

At age 39, he is the youngest billionaire in the top 10.

Sixth-placed on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index is Steve Ballmer, 67, Microsoft's chief executive from 2000 to 2014. When he retired, he bought the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion. He’s now worth $140 billion.

Seventh-placed Larry Page, 50, is worth $137 billion and is best known for co-founding Google with eighth-placed Sergey Brin, who has a net worth of $129 billion.

Ninth spot is claimed by investment legend Warren Buffett, 93, with a net worth of $128 billion.

The final billionaire on the top 10 is Larry Ellison, 79, who co-founded software company Oracle in 1977 and is also worth $128 billion.

Mr Buffett once said he would never invest in technology stocks because he did not understand them, a decision that he has since called a “stupid mistake”.

Mr Buffett has left it too late to make a trillion, and all that philanthropy does not help.

The world's first trillionaire could pop up in China or India, which have 500 and 170 billionaires, respectively, according to Vijay Valecha, chief investment officer at Century Financial.

Asian billionaires have a more domestic focus and are mostly tied to their country’s economic cycle, while US tech giants are a global play
Vijay Valecha, chief investment officer at Century Financial

Indian billionaire businessman Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, entered Bloomberg’s $100 billion club in January and is the world's 12th-richest person with a fortune of $101 billion.

Gautam Adani, founder of the Adani Group, is the 14th richest with a net worth of $91.6 billion.

However, Mr Valecha says US billionaires have an edge in the race to a net worth of $1 trillion.

“Asian billionaires have a more domestic focus and are mostly tied to their country’s economic cycle, while US tech giants are a global play,” he says.

His final suggestion is an unknown quantity, Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto, who is said to hold 1.1 million Bitcoins.

“If Bitcoin hits $909,000, he could be our first trillionaire. Supposing he exists,” Mr Valecha says.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 5:00 AM