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Soaring Stock Market Creates A Club Of Centibillionaires

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the story of America's wealth gap, there is rich, and then there is crazy, bonkers rich. The soaring stock market has created a small club of wealthy people whose fortunes just keep growing. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports on the rise of the centibillionaire - people worth more than a hundred billion dollars.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: This year has been rough on everybody - well, almost everybody. Elon Musk has watched his personal wealth grow and grow.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: As of mid-2020, the Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur is now the fifth-richest person on the planet.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Elon Musk is now the world's fourth-richest person.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Elon Musk just passed Bill Gates to become the second-richest man in the world.

ZARROLI: As Tesla's stock price has soared this year, the value of Musk's holdings has grown by a hundred billion dollars. That's a one followed by 11 zeros. Still, the quirky, South African-born entrepreneur is not quite as rich as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. A few years ago, Bezos became what Forbes magazine called the richest human being who ever lived, an honor he shrugged off.

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JEFF BEZOS: I can assure you, I have never sought that title. And it was fine being the second-wealthiest person in the world.

ZARROLI: And since then, his wealth has only grown. It passed $200 billion earlier this year before falling back a bit.

DEVON PENDLETON: It is bigger than the GDP of most countries in the world. It is larger than the entire market caps of many companies that are on the S&P 500.

ZARROLI: Devon Pendleton works on the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, which tracks the holdings of the uber-wealthy. She says Bezos is so rich that, like Musk, he has his own rocket company, which may be the ultimate toy for rich guys. Pendleton says nothing seems to keep Bezos's wealth down.

PENDLETON: He had to give about a third of his Amazon stake to his ex-wife in the divorce. And yet, still, he is worth - as of today, he's worth a hundred - almost $188 billion.

ZARROLI: In 2017, Bezos became the world's first centibillionaire, which means his worth topped a hundred billion dollars. Now there are five. Besides Musk, the others are Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the French luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault and Bill Gates of Microsoft.

Chuck Collins, of the left-wing think tank the Institute for Policy Studies, says Gates remains a centibillionaire despite his own best efforts.

CHUCK COLLINS: He can't give it away fast enough. He jokes about that himself. You know, he's at $118 billion. He's pledged to give away half of it.

ZARROLI: There's no mystery about why men like Gates, Bezos and Zuckerberg have grown so rich, says Devon Pendleton.

PENDLETON: And that's largely because of just the stock prices going up and up and up, especially in tech, where most of these centibillionaires made their fortunes.

ZARROLI: With everyone stuck at home this year, people have been spending a lot of time on Amazon and Facebook. So when other stocks were plummeting last spring and summer, tech stocks were going gangbusters. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies says the rise of the centibillionaire has exacerbated the almost unprecedented disparities of wealth in the United States.

COLLINS: It's not anything to celebrate. It's kind of a disturbing milestone.

ZARROLI: Even in a year when the global economy has flatlined, and millions of people have been thrown out of work, Collins says, a lucky few are reaping big rewards.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE COMET IS COMING'S "THE SEVEN PLANETARY HEAVENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.