- January 1, 2022: Vol. 9, Number 1

Anatomy of the rich: Who they are, how they got there, what they own

by Carolyn Marshall

Heading into 2022 and a third year of living and working in a world plagued by the COVID-19 virus, it seems fitting to take stock, so to speak. Despite the death toll, rampant unemployment, shuttered businesses and emotional distress tied to the pandemic, an unforeseen phenomena occurred over the past 18 months: The rich and ultra-rich citizens of the world enjoyed an explosion in wealth. Not only did the rich get richer, their ranks swelled.

Escalating stock prices and ballooning real estate valuations account for many of the gains, according to a dizzying array of new industry reports tracking the curious turn of events. By all accounts, the historic COVID-19 health crisis hastened seismic shifts already under way in the industry, while propelling unprecedented gains for the ultra-wealthy.


The explosion of wealth took many by surprise, says Mark Bell, partner and head of family office services and private capital at Balentine Partners. “I’ve been in this business roughly 20 years, and the magnitude of the wealth creation is unlike anything I’ve seen before,” says Bell, echoing sentiments of other wealth advisers. “I have one technology entrepreneur who two years ago had $3 million of net worth, and now he has more than $30 million.”

Every tier in the moneyed upper-echelon benefited from COVID-19 market conditions, according to year-end industry reports that crunched the numbers. Key players to weigh in on global wealth ranged from Capgemini Research Institute and Wealth-X, to Boston Consulting Group and Credit Suisse Research Institute.

Consider some standout statistical findings:

  • More than 2.5 million Americans became newly minted millionaires during the pandemic, joining an elite group of high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) with $1 million to $5 million in investable assets. In 2020, there were close to 26 million of these folks, with a combined global net worth of nearly $43 trillion. Industry estimates put the 2019 headcount for this group at 20 million to 21 million.
  • One in every 10 of the world’s multimillionaire population is classed as very-high-net-worth (VHNW) individuals, with $5 million to $30 million in personal assets.
  • Next are the ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) investors, each with private wealth of $30 million to $1 billion. In 2020, their global ranks grew 1.7 percent to nearly 300,000 people, with a combined net worth of $35.5 trillion, up 2 percent from 2019. The U.S. portion of the UHNW hit 101,240 in 2020, up 8.4 percent from a year earlier.
  • Last but hardly least, is the “nosebleed tier” of billionaires. Technically part of the UHNW group, but tracked separately they represent 0.9 percent of the global ultra rich, but hold 27 percent of the wealth at $9.5 trillion. According to Forbes, there are only 2,755 billionaires worldwide and their wealth exploded from $8 trillion in 2020 to $13.1 trillion in 2021.

North America and Asia saw gains but other regions faltered. The ultra wealthy in Africa did okay during the COVID-19 pandemic but in the Pacific, parts of Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, UHNW populations struggled and their collective net worth tumbled, according to Wealth-X.


Age surfaced as the most telling marker of investor traits during COVID-19. Wealthy people age 50 and younger, while the smallest segment, saw their fortunes grow faster than all others. Research suggests that’s because young investors, dubbed Digital Natives or people born into an internet-enabled world, wholeheartedly embrace digital assets and technology stocks, which bolstered 2020’s Wall Street/COVID-19 boom. The need to isolate and work from home added to the unprecedented reliance on technology and digitalization of work and home life. Software firms, hardware companies and online shopping venues drove up stock prices for Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and the like. By the end of 2020, the tech-driven NASDAQ skyrocketed a stunning 45 percent.

The largest segment of UHNW individuals, are between the ages of 50 and 70. The segment includes successful, self-made baby boomers, seasoned investors with wealth accumulated from a life-long careers, and those blessed with inherited fortunes but still working. Their portfolios swelled during the pandemic, but as unemployment soared, businesses failed and the virus continued to spread, many in the 50-year-old to 70-year-old category were forced to rethink retirement plans.

“We are now seeing the long-awaited, long-expected sale of baby-boomer-founded, small and medium businesses,” says Bell. “It’s been an unbelievable year [2021] for mergers and acquisitions. Why? There was a lot of private equity out there, there was a fear of selling later when there might be higher taxes and, lastly, a number of people said ‘I want to get out.’ We all saw roughly 20 percent to 25 percent of our clientele selling businesses, and that is one area where we experienced asset growth.”

Bell and others call the early retirement phenomena, the Great Resignation, a term first coined by Dr. Anthony Klotz, organizational psychologist and associate professor of management at the Mays Business School, Texas A&M University.

Almost one-third of the ultra wealthy are 70 years of age and older and, until recently, experts assumed they would be passing down the proverbial family jewels in roughly 10 years. About $15 trillion is poised to change hands in the next five years, passing from elders to young adults categorized as millennials, Generation Z and Generation Y, according to a report by IQ-EQ and Wealth-X. The pandemic fast-tracked the wealth transfer timeline.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced older generations to re-evaluate their plans to transfer their wealth to younger generations,” writes Steve Sokic, head of private wealth at IQ-EQ, in a recent article for CampdenFB. “For ultra-high-net-worth families, protection and preservation of wealth — now and for subsequent generations — will be top of mind.”

Whenever the money transfer begins, it will benefit more women than men because inheritance plays a larger role in the lives of ultra-wealthy women, according to Wealth-X. “In terms of solely inherited wealth, the share is five times higher for women than men (27 percent to 5 percent),” the report says.

Industry research also shows more women, including women of color, are self-made business owners, and the ranks of female entrepreneurs and female CEOs are on the rise.

“The percentage of women in the overall client pool is rising through both inheritance and increasing female entrepreneurship,” according to Capgemini estimates. “In the United States, there are 114 percent more women entrepreneurs than 20 years ago and 40 percent of U.S. businesses are women-owned.”

That is the good news. But here is the bottom line: “Women are a clear minority, comprising just 10 percent of the UHNW population,” according to Wealth-X. “The global UHNW population is heavily male dominated, with men accounting for a 90 percent share. The proportion of ultra-wealthy women has been on a gradual upward trend in recent years, reflecting changing cultural attitudes and growth in female entrepreneurship, as well as ongoing wealth transfers between generations. Nonetheless, the fact that wealth usually takes decades to create (or be inherited) means it is likely to be some time before a significant shift becomes appreciable.”


Very rich and ultra-rich investors continue to embrace philanthropy, traditional assets such as stocks and bonds, and alternative assets like hedge funds, private equity, real estate and infrastructure, says Kent Baker, professor of finance at the Kogod School of Business at American University. Notable shifts, however, are under way as HNW and UHNW individuals seek more meaningful ways to invest and create wealth.

“One of the changing habits, starting before COVID but continuing through it, concerns investor goals,” says Baker. “Traditionally, investors focused mainly on financial goals. Today, many investors, millennials and others, focus on dual goals, both financial and nonfinancial. These investors are concerned not only with making money but also in doing good. They’re placing more emphasis on ESG criteria [environmental, social and governance] when investing. They’re concerned with socially responsible investing and sustainable investing.”

The pandemic spawned a renewed interest in hard assets and explosive demand for luxury housing and blue chip second homes in elite ski and sand resort locales such as Aspen, Colo., and Nantucket, Mass. The investments, for some, didn’t stop there. They accessorized.

“We’ve seen an explosion in investments and interest in private aviation,” says Bell. “People did not want to be on a commercial airline but they wanted to move freely to their new second home during the lockdown. Gas went negative so jet fuel prices were low.”

The pandemic, oddly, encouraged risky investment behavior, with wealthy individuals aggressively speculating on digital assets, such as cryptocurrencies and NFTs, or nonfungible tokens used to buy coveted digital art, videos, audio and other cryptoassets. In 2021, Capgemini explored the new digital darlings of Wall Street to get a handle on popularity. The firm surveyed more than 2,900 HNW individuals across 26 markets. Seventy-two percent of those interviewed said they had invested in cryptocurrencies and 74 percent had invested in other digital assets, such as website domain names and NFTs, suggesting crypto assets have taken root.

The digital asset phenomena additionally elevated interest in “fractionalization,” giving investors a way to own, for example, a fraction of a masterpiece by Pablo Picasso or Claude Monet or a classic Porsche 911 or a rare, fine wine. Fractionalization was already a thing, but interest soared during the pandemic, driving online traffic to website platforms designed to facilitate buying and selling equity shares in collectible assets. In theory, fractionalization fosters the democratization of investing, using websites such as for art, for world-class wines and Rally ( for collectible classic cars. To date, it remains a virtual playground for the ultra-wealthy.

Risky investment behavior and speculation boosted luxury commodity prices beyond belief. The cost and value of coveted hard assets, from blue chip homes to Bitcoin, reached ethereal heights, triggered by frenzied buying and chancy investment moves, no doubt enabled by market conditions fostered by the pandemic. Experts call the gestalt of these conditions and behavior, FOMO, or fear of missing out. “With a year at home and headlines touting the hot market, FOMO has become a significant concern for 26 percent of luxury buyers,” according to a new study by Luxury Portfolio International.


Even before the pandemic, the wealth management industry was in flux. Astonishing changes in the social and political landscape, investor sensibilities about money, and the very face of the rich were all awaiting an industry response. The pandemic forced the issue, thanks to the unexpected creation of wealth among the already ultra rich.

Capgemini Research Institute summed up the “big picture” in its 2021 World Wealth Report. “Seismic shifts — technological breakthroughs, changing social dynamics, new ecosystem players, democratization of investment management, and the rise of digital channels and assets — necessitate a competitive new game plan for [wealth management] firms.”

The game plan is fluid, but at the very least today’s wealthy investors want advice in real time, 24/7. Industry experts say clients want personal attention, coupled with data-driven recommendations and assists from technology. Money alone no longer satisfies the wealthy investor. HNW individuals want to make a difference, reduce their carbon footprint and do no harm when it comes to societal woes. It’s a tall order for all involved.


Carolyn Marshall is a freelance writer based in Florida.



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