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Wealth safari

Illustration of the the Cargills, Bernard Looney, Gautam Adani and Bernard Arnault on a bag of cash
Illustration: Simon Kneebone

It’s not all doom and gloom in the world today.

Sure, billions of low-and-middle income people are struggling to keep up with rising food, energy and housing costs. But it’s boom time for billionaires and the super-rich.

The number of ultra-high net worth individuals – those with $50 million or more – hit a record 218,200 last year. And at 2,668, there are 573 more billionaires in the world today than in 2020, their combined wealth equal to nearly 14 per cent of total global GDP.

How have they done it? With a bit of help.

Disruptions in supply chains provide great opportunities for speculation by those with mega bucks. And remember that $9 trillion fiscal stimulus that central banks unleashed during the pandemic? Well, much of it went into the financial markets, and from there straight into the pockets of the super-rich.

So, let’s meet some of them. They can show us that as long as the system’s right (and for them it really is) there are eye-popping profits to be made from growing inequality – and the pain and immiseration of others.

Every bite you eat…

James Cargill II is one of 12 billionaire heirs to the giant food corporation Cargill Inc. As the UN reported a devastating rise in global food prices, Cargill posted a record 63 per cent increase in profits, which rose to $5 billion in 2021. In 2022, these were expected to be even higher.

Rosy-cheeked James, aged 73, saw his own net worth swell accordingly, from $2.7 billion in 2020 to $5 billion in 2022. Brother Austen and sister Marianne kept pace, with all three joining Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index of the 500 richest people alive.

Don’t expect the Cargills to spill the beans on their money-making ruses though. The ‘famously quiet’ family keep a ‘low profile’ on their various ranches in Wisconsin and Colorado. But the modus operandi of the corporation they 90-per-cent own is all about ‘aggressive consolidation’ rather than reticence. Result: you can barely move without encountering some Cargill ingredient, product or service, ranging from wheat, meat, poultry, oils, starches, animal feed, transport, steel, pharmaceuticals, to, crucially, commodities-trading financial services.

Cargill’s record on labour relations and pollution, meanwhile, is lamentable. Still, the company website insists: ‘Cargill is helping the world’s food system work for you.’ Well, it sure is working for them…

BP’s ‘company man’

Bernard Looney is CEO of energy giant BP. He may not be a billionaire just yet, but the Irish-born oil-and-gas chief won’t be struggling to pay his energy bill. He saw his salary double in 2021 to $5 million and he was tipped to trouser another $13.2 million in 2022. The rise in fuel costs that is causing hardship worldwide has turned BP into ‘a cash machine’ – to use Looney’s expression – with profits tripling to $8.45 billion in just three months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There was a tricky moment in February 2022, when Looney had to come off the board of Russian state-owned Rosneft and BP divested from the sanctioned energy giant. But as the bombs and missiles keep falling on Ukraine, BP shareholders – mainly big US investment funds – can console themselves with the knowledge that their share values are rising.

Self-avowed workaholic and ‘company man’, Looney likes to talk about ‘greening’ BP away from fossil fuels. The reality, in terms of real investment, has been less forthcoming. The trendy 52-year-old is also a bit of a whizz on social networks – reportedly using WhatsApp to inform his then-wife, to her surprise, that he wanted a divorce.

Too big to fail?

College drop-out Gautam Adani tried his hand at diamond trading before turning to the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel – coal. Today the laconic Indian is the world’s fourth richest man, after Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bernard Arnault. In just two years, Adani has seen his wealth grow by a phenomenal 900 per cent to $137.4 billion.

How come? Energy shortages, rising commodity prices and closeness to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (both men hail from Gujarat) have played their part. Adani, who has a stake in almost every part of India’s energy chain, recently gained valuable contracts to supply the state energy company with imported coal. When Russia invaded Ukraine and coal prices hit an all-time peak, his personal wealth leapt by $26 billion.

Adani Enterprises already includes ports, airports, gas distribution, cement, alumina (an oxide that can be smelted into aluminium), media, data centres and real estate, as well as coal mines in India, Indonesia and Australia. But the 60-year-old self-styled introvert has an extraordinary appetite for expansion and accumulating debt, amid warnings from credit analysts that his empire is ‘deeply overleveraged’. Is he making himself ‘too big to fail’?

In terms of personal spending, his penchant is for boys’ toys: helicopters (three), jets (three), luxury cars (eight).

‘The wolf in cashmere’

‘How to spend it?’ is a constant headache for the super-rich. Bernard Arnault, the French luxury goods billionaire, has been supplying remedies for years – and enriching himself in the process. In May 2021 he became, briefly, the world’s richest person – presumably buoyed as the wealthy looked for outlets for their moolah after months of lockdowns.

The elfin 73-year-old ‘pope of fashion’ is still sitting pretty, his LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) empire – which includes some 75 brands such as Dior, Givenchy, Gucci, Bulgari, Tiffany’s and Princess Yachts – making him the third richest man in the world.

But that’s not the whole story. Arnault is also known for his cunning investments, holding, for example, a 10-per-cent share in Carrefour, the second largest food distributor in the world. The supermarket brand has seen profits continue to rise through the cost-of-living crisis.

The billionaire boom and soaring share prices of recent times have served Arnault well. But he has other skills: the ‘taste-maker’ and fine art collector, who acquired Christian Dior for sentimental reasons – it was his mother’s favourite brand – does not extend such sentimentality towards his workers. He earned himself the nickname ‘Terminator’ after sacking 9,000 of them in one go.

Correction: A previous version of the article stated BP boss Bernard Looney came off the board of Rosneft in February 2021. Looney withdrew from the board in February 2022. 

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