The richest of the rich keep getting still richer. Indeed, it has been a fantastic year for an elite subset of the world’s wealthiest. The top five gainers of 2019 added nearly $112 billion to their fortunes. That is well more than double the jump in 2018, when the fortunes of the five biggest winners increased by just over $48 billion. Driving up these audacious gains were outperforming stocks, not just in the U.S., where equity markets hit record highs, but in other parts of the world as well.
This year’s biggest winner by a landslide is France’s Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury goods titan LVMH. The third-richest person on the planet, he is worth $40 billion more than a year ago and is now one of just three people with 12-figure fortunes. His massive gain is nearly $18 billion more than that of anyone else on earth in 2019. Coming in second is Facebook’s controversial chief Mark Zuckerberg, who was last year’s biggest loser. In a complete reversal of fortunes, he is $22.1 billion richer, after having lost $18.7 billion in the previous year.
Similarly, last year’s biggest gainer, Jeff Bezos, is now one of the biggest losers, due to his $30 billion-plus divorce settlement with his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie Bezos. His fortune dropped only by approximately $13 billion, as Amazon’s stock rose 18%, counteracting much of the drop.
Sometimes being the biggest loser is not such a bad thing. Indian tech magnate Azim Premji, who is chairman of the $8.4 billion (2018 revenue) IT company Wipro, announced in March that he had transferred more than 60% of his stake in Wipro to his foundation over the years. “To whom much has been given, much should be expected,” he told Forbes at the time.
To measure fortunes for this article, Forbes looked at the change in net worth of more than 2,200 billionaires between December 28, 2018 and December 13, 2019. We calculated the biggest winners and losers in absolute dollar terms and only took into consideration billionaires with investments in publicly traded companies.
Net worth: $107.7 billion
No one had a better year than Bernard Arnault, chief executive of French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which encompasses more than 70 brands including Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Dior, and Fendi. LVMH’s stock price rose about 54% in 2019, nearly tripling in less than four years. In November, LVMH announced its largest acquisition ever, agreeing to buy the 182-year-old iconic jeweler Tiffany & Co for $16.2 billion. The deal is expected to close in the middle of 2020. “What I have in mind every morning is that the desirability of a brand should be as strong in ten years,” he told Forbes in November. “It’s really the key to our success.”
Net worth: $72 billion
As the 2020 U.S. presidential elections loom large, Zuckerberg continues to attract critics, from presidential candidates to fellow billionaires such as Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, who, in a radical move, removed all political ads from his own platform in October. Yet Facebook managed to exceed analysts’ expectations with its quarterly results the same month. The company also launched a variety of new initiatives in 2019, including Facebook News and Facebook Dating. “Today is certainly a historical moment of social tension, and I view an important role of our company as defending free expression,” Zuckerberg said in an earnings call in November. Facebook’s stock price surged 48% in the past year.
Net worth: $74.9 billion
After a less-than-stellar 2018, the share price of Amancio Ortega’s Inditex, best known for its popular clothing retailer Zara, increased nearly 34% this year. In an interim report in November, the company announced that it had been cutting down operating expenses while expanding Zara’s global presence, adding online stores in South Africa, Colombia, the Philippines and Ukraine. Ortega has about a 60% stake in Inditex, whose brands also include Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear and Bershka.
Net worth: $56.3 billion
Former CEO of Microsoft, Ballmer helped the $1.18 trillion (market capitalization) technology company through tumultuous times from 2000 to 2014. In 2019, Microsoft earnings continued to rise thanks to its presence in commercial cloud services. The firm also announced a buyback plan in September of up to $40 billion in stock and raised its quarterly dividend by 11%, boosting its share price significantly.
Net worth: $61.4 billion
For the third year in a row, Ambani lands on our list of top gainers. His Reliance Industries— which has stakes in oil, gas, telecom, and retail—had a strong 2019, and is on track to being debt-free by March 31, 2020. Reliance agreed in August to sell a 20% stake in its petrochemicals and oil refining business to Saudi Aramco for $15 billion. It also announced a fuel retailing joint venture with BP in December, which will launch up to 5,500 gas stations across India branded as Jio-BP. Ambani chairs and runs the $90.1 billion (2019 revenue) Reliance Industries, which was founded by his late father as a small textile manufacturer half a century ago.
1. Azim Premji
Net worth: $7.2 billion
In mid-March, Indian tech tycoon Premji announced that he shifted a $7.5 billion stake in his IT outsourcing company, Wipro Limited, to his charitable foundation. That move brought his lifetime giving to $21 billion, according to his foundation. Upon his father’s death, Premji dropped out of Stanford in 1966 to take over his family’s cooking oil business. He shifted the business into software and expanded the business into $8.5 billion (2019 revenue) Wipro. He eventually graduated from Stanford in 2000.
2. Jeff Bezos
Net worth: $109.7 billion
Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, announced in January 2019 that they were divorcing after 25 years of marriage. As part of the divorce settlement, Amazon founder and CEO Bezos transferred 25% of his stake in the company to MacKenzie, who now owns about 4% of the e-commerce giant. After the transfer was finalized in July, Forbes calculated that Bezos’ net worth dropped by $36.8 billion. Since then Amazon’s stock has risen, negating much of the drop.
Net worth: $660 million
Chairman of Indian media conglomerate Essel Group, Chandra had a rocky 2019. In January, a news report alleged that Essel was linked to a company being probed by India’s Serious Fraud Investigation Office for suspicious transactions; Essel reportedly denied the allegations. Since the beginning of January, the share price of Zee Entertainment Enterprises, one of Essel’s media companies, plummeted 41%. Another Essel Group company, Dish TV India, struggled and its stock price was down 65% in the same time period. The group, which has been divesting some of its assets to repay lenders, sold an 11% stake in Zee Entertainment Enterprises to Invesco Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund in July for over $600 million.
Net worth: $2.8 billion
Ride-hailing app Uber—one of the most anticipated IPOs this year—has been a stock market flop. Shares have fallen by more than 30% since its public debut in May. That pushed down the net worth of former CEO Travis Kalanick, who owned about 8.6% of the company at the IPO. In addition, Kalanick has sold nearly 90% of his Uber shares since the lockup expired in early November. Each time he sells—he’s unloaded more than $2 billion worth of shares—he has to pay state and federal capital gains taxes, another hit to his fortune. Kalanick, who cofounded Uber in 2009, stepped down as CEO in June 2017 after a series of scandals but remains a board member.
5. Yan Zhi
Net worth: $2.1 billion
In August, Yan Zhi’s Zall Smart Commerce Group reported a 74% decrease in profits for the fiscal year ending June 2019. In a letter to investors in September, co-chairman Yan acknowledged the struggles the group has had to face, citing “a period characterized by complex international economic conditions and increasing downward pressure on the domestic economy.” The firm started in 1996 as a shopping mall developer and then got into e-commerce as well as wholesale trading, logistics and warehousing.