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Opinion | Even in a Pandemic, the Billionaires Are Winning

Food banks across the country are bracing for another surge in demand. If a federal moratorium on evictions is allowed to expire at the end of the year, millions of Americans will have to pay months of back rent — making them vulnerable to what housing advocates warn will be a wave of evictions.

Why are American billionaires doing so well while so many other Americans suffer? Part of the story is garden-variety American inequality. Stocks are overwhelmingly owned by the wealthy, and the stock market has recovered from its early-pandemic depths much more quickly than other parts of the economy.

But some billionaires are also benefiting from economic and technological trends that were accelerated by the pandemic. Among these are the owners and investors of retail giants like Amazon, Walmart, Target, Dollar Tree and Dollar General, which have reported huge profits this year while many of their smaller competitors were clobbered as the coronavirus spread.

Then there are companies that have bet on the rapid digitization of everything. Eric Yuan, the chief executive of Zoom, became a billionaire in 2019. Now he is worth almost $20 billion. Apoorva Mehta, the founder of the grocery-delivery company Instacart, was not a billionaire last year; this year, after a spike in orders that led to a new round of investment that pumped up the value of his company, he’s safely in the club. Dan Gilbert, the chairman of Quicken Loans, was worth less than $7 billion in March; now he commands more than $43 billion.

But like in the rest of the economy, there is a great deal of stratification even among billionaires — richer billionaires got even richer in 2020 than the poorer ones did.

Some of the numbers are staggering. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, was worth about $113 billion at the start of the pandemic. Now he is worth $182 billion — an increase of about $69 billion. Jim, Alice and Rob Walton, three of the largest shareholders of Walmart, saw their combined wealth grow by $47 billion during the pandemic.

Two years ago, Bezos was the only “centibillionaire” on earth — the trendy neologism for people whose wealth exceeds $100 billion. Now there are five — in addition to Bezos, there’s Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Bernard Arnault, the French luxury tycoon. Arnault’s wealth plummeted early in the pandemic, but demand for some luxury goods has rebounded in recent months, and his fortune is once again secure.

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