Who holds the world’s wealth

Most people these days know that global wealth is unequal, and becoming more so. But the latest statistics that illustrate these trends are still mind-boggling, no matter how you look at them.

There are lots of ways of comparing the inequality of wealth — which is defined as people’s assets, like their savings and property, minus their debts. One is that the world’s richest 1 percent has more wealth than the rest of the globe combined, according to data from Credit Suisse.

Another is that, in 2015, just 62 people in the world had the same wealth as the poorer half of humanity — 3.6 billion people, according to a new report by Oxfam, the antipoverty organization, which makes calculations based on the Credit Suisse data.

These 62 people are very, very rich, to be sure, but it’s also true that the global bottom half is desperately poor. And for that reason, who really counts among the world’s richest is a matter of perspective.

It depends on whether you’re judging yourself against your neighbors, your fellow citizens, or the entire world’s population. A middle-class American with a little bit of wealth could feel quite privileged after all.

To be among the wealthiest half of the world last year, an adult needed to own only $3,210 in net assets (minus debts), according to the data. To be in the top 10 percent, a person needed to have only $68,800 in wealth. To be in the top percentile, the threshold climbed to $760,000, according to Credit Suisse.

Consider that, according to the Federal Reserve, the median American family had $81,000 in net worth in 2013, and the average family had $535,000 in net worth.

To get an idea of this inequality, you can try visualizing the global wealth distribution like a pyramid:

The base comprises adults with less than $10,000 in wealth. This is the bulk of the global population — 71 percent, to be exact, who altogether own only 3 percent of global wealth, according to Credit Suisse data.

The next level up, with wealth of $10,000 to $100,000, contains 21 percent of the world’s population, but has 12.5 percent of its wealth.

The next level, from $100,000 to $1 million, has just 7.3 percent of the population and about 40 percent of the wealth.

And at the very top of the pyramid are those with over $1 million in wealth. This group contains only 0.7 percent of the world’s adults, but collectively it owns 45 percent of the world’s assets, says Credit Suisse.

And that inequality has worsened in recent years. According to Oxfam, the wealth of the richest 62 people has risen by more than half a trillion dollars since 2010, while the wealth of the poorer half has stagnated.

Not everyone embraces these figures. Journalists Ezra Klein and Felix Salmon critiqued Oxfam’s figures last year, with Salmon actually calling them “crap.”

Part of the critique is that, in analyzing the world’s wealth, the Credit Suisse data subtracts debt from the picture. As a result, the poorest portion of the world population includes some people in developed countries who have taken on debt to, for example, go to graduate school or start a business — not the people who you would usually think of as the world’s most destitute.

Critics argue that these debtors drag down the overall wealth of the world’s poorest people and distort the picture of global inequality. By the numbers, they are the world’s poorest people, but their ability to take out loans and go into debt is actually a sign of relative privilege.

But how much of global wealth do these indebted people really represent? Tony Shorrocks, the lead author of Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Databook, and Deborah Hardoon, the lead author of the Oxfam report, which draws on Shorrocks’ data, said that while there are rich-but-indebted people on the lower end of the spectrum, it doesn’t really change the overall picture.

According to Shorrocks’ calculations, there are 2.4 billion adults (excluding kids) in the bottom half of the global wealth distribution, and 108.6 million of those adults have negative wealth.

There is a lot of debt in high-income countries, but little debt in middle- or low-income countries. The net debt of the world’s bottom half comes to $844 billion, says Shorrocks, which drags down the net wealth of the bottom half from $2.3 trillion to $1.5 trillion.

That might seem like a lot. But compared to the wealth held by the richer half of the globe, it’s peanuts. According to Shorrock, $844 billion is only about one-third of 1 percent of the world’s total net wealth.

That’s a lot of numbers, but the basic lesson is this: Because global inequality is so extreme, the bottom half of the global wealth distribution is only a tiny amount of the world’s wealth.

“My conclusion is that the treatment of those with negative wealth has little impact on wealth inequality worldwide, although it can be important for particular countries (e.g. Norway, Denmark),” Shorrocks wrote.

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