It would be an understatement to say 2022 was a turbulent year for the world’s richest people, and Forbes’s newly unveiled ranking of the world’s billionaires in 2023 shows that they paid a hefty price for scandal.
Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk, Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, and disgraced crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried were riding high a year ago as some of the world’s wealthiest people. Since then, their fortunes have taken a tumble, according to the Forbes list, along with those of most crypto billionaires. While Musk lost the title of richest person in the world, Bankman-Fried dropped from the list altogether, and Adani fell from No. 11 to No. 24, it was a banner year for the 12 new sports billionaires who joined the ranks, including basketball player LeBron James, golf champion Tiger Woods, and former motorsports racer Toto Wolff, who is now part owner of the Formula 1 team Mercedes-AMG Petronas.
It’s notable that two active athletes — James and Woods — have reached billionaire status. In the past, if sports stars became billionaires at all, it was usually after they had retired. (See: Michael Jordan.) It speaks to how a growing number of athletes are “more savvy about investing money, taking equity in companies, growing their brands,” said Chase Peterson-Withorn, senior editor of wealth at Forbes. James has a variety of investments in real estate and in businesses, including in Fenway Sports Group (which owns the Boston Red Sox), while Woods has raked in money from brand endorsement deals and investments in golf-related companies.
But the most unanticipated addition to the 2023 billionaire rankings? Probably singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. “Jimmy Buffett is sort of a similar example to LeBron or Tiger Woods — it’s somebody who has earned a serious amount of money over the years touring and doing things like that, and has invested it wisely,” said Peterson-Withorn. His most famous song, “Margaritaville,” is among the most profitable tunes of all time; it’s been spun off into a multibillion-dollar hospitality chain that has been expanding to new locations in recent years.
In all, according to Forbes, there are 2,640 billionaires in the world — 28 fewer than last year — and they’re $500 billion poorer than in 2022. Tech billionaires suffered a second year of big blows, together losing about $200 billion.
Musk, who was the world’s richest man this time last year (before he put in his fateful $44 billion bid to purchase Twitter), was worth about $219 billion in early 2022. His wealth, like that of many tech billionaires, exploded between 2019 and 2020, and he’s still the only person to break $300 billion. But the pandemonium of Musk’s Twitter acquisition, and the series of bemusing decisions he made since taking over, took its toll on his public image and the stock price of Tesla, which makes up the bulk of Musk’s wealth. He was dethroned as the world’s richest person by luxury goods billionaire Bernard Arnault, CEO of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and today, Forbes estimates Musk to be worth a humble $180 billion. Indian billionaire Adani, formerly the richest person in Asia, meanwhile, was worth $90 billion on last year’s list; his wealth has plummeted to $47.2 billion after a US investment firm released a report accusing the Adani Group conglomerate of fraud.
Even Jeff Bezos, who announced last fall that he aimed to give away most of his fortune, lost $57 billion in a year and is now worth $114 billion. “He’s down more than anybody else in the world,” Peterson-Withorn said. Former President Donald Trump is also down $700 million after his social media company Truth Social struggled to gain users. (There’s no telling yet what effect his recent indictment on 34 felony counts will have on his riches.)
A few scandal-embroiled billionaires fell off the list altogether, including former FTX head Bankman-Fried, who has been charged with fraud and money laundering, among other charges, amid accusations that he misappropriated billions of dollars from his crypto exchange clients. Ye is also no longer a billionaire, according to Forbes, after Adidas severed its collaboration with him in response to a series of antisemitic comments the rapper made last year; the deal had made up about $1.5 billion of Ye’s net worth. (Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has also disappeared from the Forbes ranking, but by choice; he gave away his company to a nonprofit trust last year.)
Crypto billionaires in general took a huge hit as they weathered a brutal slump in crypto prices and increased regulatory scrutiny on companies. Last year, Forbes identified 19 crypto and blockchain billionaires; there are nine left in 2023, and all of them are poorer than they were last year. Brian Armstrong, CEO of the crypto exchange Coinbase, has seen his wealth shrink by roughly two-thirds; Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, founders of the embattled crypto exchange Gemini, are each worth about $1.2 billion now, just a quarter of their net worth last year.
“It’s relatively rare for billionaires that have two down years in a row,” noted Peterson-Withorn. “A major takeaway is just that they’re not entirely immune from the effects of rising interest rates and fear of recession.” Still, the world’s billionaires collectively remain immensely powerful, controlling about $12.2 trillion.
Most of the dozen new sports billionaires are owners of sports teams, such as Woody Johnson, co-owner of the New York Jets football team. Sports teams are more valuable than ever; the Denver Broncos sold (to Walmart heir and billionaire Rob Walton) for a record $4.65 billion last year. “Athletes are earning more than ever, teams are selling for more than ever,” said Peterson-Withorn. Media rights deals are also more lucrative than ever, and the nascent online sports betting boom promises even greater payouts in the near future.
Billionaires in the luxury goods sector are enjoying a boom time too. Beyond Arnault, who is now worth $211 billion, the Bettencourt-Meyerses (owners of the cosmetics giant L’Oréal), the Wertheimers (Chanel), and Giorgio Armani have all seen their wealth grow in the past year. Frances Bettencourt-Meyers is currently the richest woman in the world. Luxury fashion tends to be resilient during inflation and recession anxieties — after all, its wealthy clientele can afford to spend big even while others are facing (and railing against) a cost-of-living crisis. LVMH reported a record profit of 14 billion euros (about $15.3 billion USD) in 2022. “There’s good money to be made selling expensive stuff to people who already have a lot of money,” said Peterson-Withorn.
Forbes’s annual tallying of billionaires began in 1987. In its inaugural year, the magazine identified 140 billionaires worldwide, and 44 of them were American. Since then, the number of billionaires worldwide has skyrocketed. Of the 2,640 in 2023, 735 are American.
Appearing on the list has become something of a status symbol for some billionaires. Though some dislike the publicity, “I know that there are at least a select few billionaires who care very much about where they are in the list, and don’t want to drop,” said Peterson-Withorn.
For some, however, Forbes’s 2023 ranking paints a dire picture of wealth inequality all over the world. Morris Pearl, chair of the progressive tax reform advocacy group Patriotic Millionaires, told Vox in an email that the list was “an annual exercise to remind us how much inequality we have in our society. The huge accumulation of wealth by a few hundred people while so many are barely getting by — and some are really not getting by — is unsustainable.”