2003 was a very good year for the very rich: taxes were down, stocks recovered, the real estate market continued its climb. The wealthy even had more people who could relate to just how tough it is to be, well, wealthy: the number of millionaires worldwide swelled to 7.7 million in 2003, up half a million, or 7 percent, from the prior year, according to the 2004 World Wealth Report compiled by Merrill Lynch and the consultancy Capgemini Group.
These individuals' wealth, measured in financial assets excluding the value of homes, grew 7.7 percent to $28.8 trillion in 2003.
The biggest gain in the number of new millionaires came in North America (U.S. and Canada), which increased to 2.5 million, up 13.5 percent from 2002. The wealth of these individuals increased by 13.6 percent last year, to $8.5 trillion. Not bad in an economy that saw 1.66 million bankruptcy filings, moderate GDP growth of 3.1 percent and 1.5 million jobs lost.
The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) covered the survey in more detail, spending some time describing the United States' well-known disproportionate distribution of wealth. Not sure how many people would be surprised to learn that the gap between the rich and the poor may very well grow in future.
However, The Journal did suggest that many of the nouveau-rich were entrepreneurs selling their small and not-so-small businesses in a year that was resurgent in terms of acquisitions and initial public offerings. This year is shaping up to add more to the list.
For those who make it to the end of the article, there's a little aside that says in the next 50 years there will be an estimated $41trillion to $136 trillion transferred by inheritance. If you happen to be looking to build a new enterprise, The Journal points out that the wealthy shopping to minimize the tax hit are driving growth in estate planning and tax advising businesses.
Let me make another suggestion: lobbyist. With that much money on the line, people aren't going to hand it over to the government without a fight. However, while the few have a disproportionate amount of wealth, they're short on votes. Expect the so-called "Death Tax" to outlive us all, unless, of course, we all become millionaires.