Wealth has always been a relative concept. Generations ago, everyday Americans fantasized about becoming millionaires. Today millionaires practically are everyday Americans—in 2020 there were close to 22 million of them in the U.S. alone. Now, you need to be a billionaire to garner some attention.
John D. Rockefeller is often cited as the world's first billionaire, achieving that status in 1916 largely through his ownership of Standard Oil. From that point over a century ago, wealth has multiplied to the point where the richest men and women in the world top out at around $150 billion each. The question is, how long will it take before the world sees its first trillionaire?
- The world today has a large supply of millionaires and more than 1,000 billionaires, but the first trillionaire remains to emerge.
- The first trillionaire may be among today's wealthiest men or women or could come out of nowhere based on a new, trillion-dollar idea.
- A trillion dollars is a mind-boggling amount of money, exceeding the gross domestic product of many nations.
The Scale of the Problem
In many respects, wealth begets wealth. Rich people have attractive investment options that are often not available to "regular people." That said, there gets to be a point where the level of one's wealth becomes an impediment to the rate of return. To double a $100 billion stake is tantamount to finding another Vietnam to invest in, and those opportunities are not commonplace. When investors hear Warren Buffett speak of his difficulty in finding suitable opportunities for his cash, consider that he has much less than $100 billion to actually put to work.
On top of those issues are obstacles related to government policy. The sort of monopolistic and robber-baron activities that created the world's first self-made multimillionaires in the 1800s are now largely illegal across most of the world. Moreover, taxes, in general, are higher now and governments offer fewer loopholes and shelters than in the past. This doesn't mean that a creative and motivated entrepreneur won't find ways around these obstacles, but it seems fair to say that the business of becoming hyper-rich has gotten harder with time.
The Will and Appetite for Risk
Less quantitative, but certainly important, is the role of psychology. Simply put, most people find it hard to stay as hungry and aggressive when they have ample wealth as when they were poor and had little to lose if things failed. Consider billionaires John Paulson, George Soros, and Jim Simons. All of these men are quite wealthy and certainly have shown a large degree of comfort with the use of leverage in their investing. But it is hard to imagine that any of them see the need to take on that kind of risk today.
Could Paulson or others apply 10-to-1 leverage and make a play for $1 trillion? Perhaps. But these men already have built what is quite likely to be multigenerational wealth, so why would they throw that away on a risky and improbable gamble? What could someone buy with $1 trillion that is not available at $1 billion, and is it worth risking it all?
A Handful of Candidates
The first trillionaire may or may not come from the current ranks of the world's richest people, although the younger they are today the better their odds are. Jeff Bezos, at 58, has a net worth of $171 billion, according to Forbes. Elon Musk, age 50, is worth $219 billion.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Meta (formerly Facebook), is only 37 and reportedly worth around $67.3 billion. Clearly, that is a fine start. If Zuckerberg can find a way to grow his wealth 10% a year every year (excluding taxes), he could be a trillionaire before his 65th birthday. But consider how impossibly large Meta would have to become to fuel that sort of wealth. With his ownership stake, Meta would have to grow to 10 times the current size of ExxonMobil to make him a trillionaire.
One off-the-board candidate to consider would be Craig Venter. Famous as the founder of Celera Genomics, and for overseeing research that has led to what arguably amounts to the first example of synthetic life, Venter is both brilliant and keenly ambitious. Although he does not appear to be currently targeting cancer as a subject of his research (focusing instead on synthetic biology that could be applied to clean fuels), imagine what a cure for cancer could be worth. The U.S. currently spends more than $200 billion a year on broadly defined "cancer care," and a true cure would seem to be a multitrillion-dollar opportunity. Then again, clean biofuel is nothing to sneeze at either; it likely will not make Venter a trillionaire, but the idea cannot be wholly dismissed.
For purposes of this article, we've left out government leaders and dictators. But it is not unthinkable that an individual or family could rule a petrostate and come to be worth $1 trillion or more if the value of the resources in the ground is included in the calculation.
How Much Is a Trillion Dollars?
A trillion dollars equals 1,000 billion dollars. A billion dollars equals 1,000 million dollars. Expressed in numbers, a trillion dollars is $1,000,000,000,000. Any way you look at it, a trillion dollars is a phenomenal sum of money. For example, $1 trillion is roughly the same as the gross domestic product (GDP) of Mexico ($1.07 trillion in 2020) or Australia ($1.33 trillion in 2020).
What Could You Buy With $1 Trillion?
One trillion dollars is enough money to buy up all the shares of ExxonMobil (XOM), McDonald’s (MCD), and Coca-Cola (KO)—and still have billions left over.
What Is the Next Big Number After a Trillion?
The next big number after a trillion is a quadrillion, which is 1,000 trillion.
The Bottom Line
Beyond the handful of individuals referred to here, it is anybody's guess who will be the first person to amass $1 trillion in wealth or how soon that might happen. Inflation could make the job a little easier (a million dollars isn't worth what it used to be), but it is still a distant goal—not to mention a mind-boggling amount of money.