Just 10 days into 2018 and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and a thorn in the side of Donald Trump, has seen his personal wealth soar by $6bn (£4.4bn).
The man at the helm of the sprawling online empire – which accounted for an extraordinary 89% of online Christmas trading at big US retailers – Bezos is now worth $106bn, enough to cover Britain’s budget deficit twice over and still have change.
Officially, he is the richest man on the planet – the latest in a list of plutocrats stretching all the way back to Croesus, the king of Lydia in the 6th century BC who was so rich he had an expression name after him. Only once before has one man been worth twelve figures, when Bill Gates’s fortune hit its peak of $100bn at the height of the dotcom bubble in 1999. Bezos overtook Gates last year and the gap has widened almost daily.
Even so, the impact of inflation means Bezos is not the richest man who ever lived. He is not even the richest American who ever lived: that title would go to one of the titans of US industry from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and Henry Ford all amassed fortunes that would make the Amazon founder a relative pauper once rising prices were taken into account.
Looking further back, lists of the top 10 richest men of all time include William the Conqueror’s relative Alan Rufus. According to the US magazine Money, when he died around 1093, Alan’s estate was worth £11,000. The Domesday Book had helpfully put a value on all property in England after the Norman conquest and Rufus held 7% of it. Bezos’s wealth, by contrast, does not amount to even 1% of current US GDP; to match Rufus his wealth would need to be $1.25tn.
Even less is known about other historical figures who controlled vast fortunes. From the Egyptian pharaohs to the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar and the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan, wealth down the ages has often been concentrated in the hands of the few.
Nor is Bezos without question the richest man currently living. While it is relatively easy to work out the net worth of Bezos and Gates from the value of their share portfolios, nobody knows for sure how much members of the Saudi Arabian royal family are worth. Nor has anybody come up with a definitive figure for the net worth of Vladimir Putin, although rumour has it that the Russian president’s fortune is bigger than that of Bezos or Gates. Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan leader, is said to have salted away $200bn during his time in power.
Bezos’s wealth is disclosed on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which looks at publicly available data on company ownership and stock market stakes, making it easy to quantify. The list is dominated by Americans, given their ownership of the world’s biggest public companies. But others, from Russian oligarchs to leaders of developing nations, control vast undisclosed sums. Some may also be hidden due to opaque company structures, with funds or assets placed offshore.
The increase in Bezos’s wealth is a result of a surge in the value of Amazon shares – fuelled by a stock market rally that owes much to Trump’s corporate tax cuts, which came into force at the start of the year. Bezos owns 16% of Amazon, which has risen in value by more than 50% since the president’s inauguration a year ago – an ironic situation given that Bezos also owns the Washington Post, a paper that has been a source of almost constant irritation for the US president, which he refers to as a factory of fake news.
Nevertheless Bezos – born into a middle-class family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1964 and who launched Amazon in 1994 selling books from his garage in Seattle – is now number one on the rich list ahead of Gates and the investor Warren Buffett.
After taking inflation into account, the $100bn fortune belonging to Bill Gates would have been worth almost $150bn in today’s money.
The Microsoft founder might also have been worth more than Bezos today if he hadn’t given away almost $36bn through the charitable foundation he runs with his wife, Melinda.
Measured against the total wealth in the US at the time the dotcom bubble burst Gates was much richer than Bezos. According to Credit Suisse, total wealth in the world’s largest economy has more than doubled to $93.5tn since the year 2000.
Billionaires have been getting richer in recent years, at a time of growing concerns over inequality in developed nations. The world’s super-rich have been estimated to now own the greatest concentration of wealth since the US Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, when industrialists such as Rockefeller and Carnegie grew rich beyond imagination. That period came to an end with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.
The world’s 500 richest people increased their wealth by $1tn last year, buoyed by huge increases in the value of global shares.