Updated May 14, 2022 - Economy & Business

It’s a bad year to be fantastically rich

Benjamin Franklin with a party horn
Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

It hasn't been a great year for the 0.00001%. The fortunes of Russian oligarchs have been frozen; crypto fortunes have been destroyed; and five billionaires — Bernard Arnault, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Changpeng Zhao — have each lost more than $50 billion this year alone.

Why it matters: Even the most chipper tycoon might feel a pang of humility upon seeing an 11 (or 12)-figure sum evaporate from his personal balance sheet.

What we're watching: In good times, billionaires enter into a friendly (or not-so-friendly) competition over who can have the biggest and most expensive toys: yachts, castles, art, islands, jets, that kind of thing. But during times like these, such competition is replaced by a desire to preserve wealth, rather than spend it.

  • A $410 million Roman villa with an original Caravaggio ceiling goes unsold.
  • A Warhol that art dealer Richard Polsky suggested might sell for $500 million instead sells for less than $200 million.

Even the richest man in the world can start to feel constrained, after his wealth has fallen by an astonishing $124 billion since early November.

  • Musk has a legally binding obligation to buy Twitter for $44 billion, but the markets don't believe it's going to happen, with the price of Twitter stock implying a probability of only about 65% that the deal will go through at full price. (I went into the full details of the math involved here.)
  • It's not going to be easy for Musk to find the cash he needs to put down to buy Twitter — and he can't just walk away while paying a $1 billion break-up fee, either. Twitter's board would file suit, asking a court to require him to pay the agreed-upon $44 billion, and a judge would almost certainly side with them.
  • That explains Musk’s attempt to find co-investors in the deal. He clearly wants to lighten his personal financial burden, even if that means borrowing money at 14% interest or making an implicit promise to take Twitter public again.

The bottom line: The U.S. economy is still running hot — but the markets aren't. Those of us who work for a living are broadly fine. Those who don't need to, on the other hand, are feeling a bit of a pinch.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 12.

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