Last year marked the first time since the financial crisis of 2008 that global wealth declined year-over-year, according to UBS’s annual global wealth report.
Overall, the world lost $11.3 trillion in household wealth last year, a decline of 2.4%. Of all countries, the U.S. was hit the hardest with $5.9 trillion in losses, a stark contrast to its $15.9 trillion in gains in 2021. The drop—mostly attributed to unfavorable foreign exchange rates compared to the U.S. dollar—represented the biggest decrease since 2008, when the housing market collapse brought the global economy to its knees.
Last year’s declines in overall wealth were concentrated among the richest people in the wealthiest countries, the report says. Alongside the U.S., other countries that saw wealth decline were Japan, China, Canada and Australia—all nations firmly ensconced at the top of the global economy. With one exception, the declines in 2022 were less than the staggering gains from 2021. That exception was Japan, where wealth declined in 2021 as well.
“The record wealth growth in 2021, fueled in part by vigorous stock markets, resulted in large wealth increases in many markets,” the report states. “Stock market losses in 2022 often reversed – at least in part – the gains made a year earlier.”
The fact that 2021’s gains and 2022’s declines had been so closely linked to the stock market hinted at whose finances may have been more affected: rich people.
The number of millionaires in the world fell by 3.5 million in 2022 to 59.4 million total. About 51% of the people who fell from millionaire status in 2022 were in the U.S.—a total of about 1.8 million. However, the U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of millionaires with 22.7 million, accounting for 38.2% of the global total.
The geographical distribution of wealth declines in 2022 is heavily skewed towards North America and Europe, largely because they are home to the most millionaires. North America has 42% of the world’s millionaires, while Europe has 27%, despite the two regions combining for roughly 10% of the global population, according to data from the World Bank and the United Nations.
Even high net worth individuals—defined as households with assets over $50 million—weren’t spared. Their global numbers declined by 9% to approximately 22,500 total households, with the U.S. again leading with 81% of these declines. The report termed this finding “unusual” given that in previous years North America and the U.S., in particular, had seen a historic increase in the number of ultra-high net worth households. In 2021, the number of people at this level rose a staggering 70%. In fact, their waning numbers bucks a longstanding trend in which the number of people with over $50 million in assets quadrupled since the Great Financial crisis.
Confirming that those hardest hit were at the top of the financial dogpile was the fact that wealth inequality also fell over the same time. Global median wealth, which UBS refers to as a “more meaningful indicator of how the typical person is faring,” rose 3% in 2022. While the overall gap in wealth inequality may have shrunk, it was only nominally so, as the top 1% still own 44.5% of global wealth.
It may not have taken much to reduce wealth inequality on a percent basis, though, considering that during the pandemic the fortunes of the world’s wealthiest people grew like never before. The nonprofit Oxfam estimated that over 24 months, from March 2020 to March 2022, the world’s wealthiest people made as much money as they had in the previous 23 years.
UBS’s top brass mostly blamed inflation for cutting into the pockets of the world’s wealthiest people. “Much of the decline in wealth in 2022 was driven by high inflation and the appreciation of the US dollar against many other currencies,” the report’s author, Anthony Shorrocks, said in a statement.
Last year, global inflation was just under 9%, according to the International Monetary Fund. Ironically, it may well have been the wealthy’s ability to spend despite rising prices that exacerbated the very inflation that now, 18 months later, led to their declining wealth.
Although last year’s numbers may only be a blip. UBS forecasts that through 2027 the number of millionaires will rise to 86 million, a 44% increase from the latest tally in Tuesday’s report. Meanwhile, the number of ultra-high net worth individuals is expected to rise 53% from current levels.