Monday, February 27, 2023

Do the Collisons have more wealth than half the population?

Around a month ago, Oxfam issued its annual missive on wealth inequality.  Each year it is designed to generate headlines and this year Oxfam Ireland did so by targeting the Collison brothers, John and Patrick.  The headline of the press release was:

Oxfam Headline 2023


A number of media outlets gave prominence to the claim (such as here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  From Oxfam’s perspective this is achieving their objective and they certainly have no reason to change their approach.

The estimates of the wealth of individuals are taken from the Forbes Billionaires list. For the end of 2022, Forbes estimated that the net wealth of each of the Collison brothers was $9.5 billion.  This corresponds to the €15 billion figure in the headline.

There are a variety of sources that give estimates of the population-wide distribution of net wealth in Ireland.  In their recent reports Oxfam have used the estimates from the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report

For 2021, the aggregate net wealth of Ireland’s adult population of 3.66 million adults aged over 20 is put at $920 billion (Table 2.2, page 110).  The wealth share of the bottom 50 percent is estimated to be 1.2 percent (Table 4.5, page 140).  Fairly straightforward arithmetic tells us that $11 billion is the estimated net wealth of the bottom 50 percent.  It also seems straightforward that the headline is correct.

But let’s look at the wealth estimates in a little more detail. First, by decile:

Credit Suisse Bottom 50 Percent Ireland

We can see that while the total for the bottom 50 percent is as Oxfam have stated, the result in very much dependent on the negative wealth share of the first decile.  Indeed, we get the somewhat contradictory outcome that although the Collison’s estimated net wealth is greater than the bottom 50 percent, it is significantly less than the net wealth of the those in the fifth decile alone (those between 40 percent and 50 percent of the wealth distribution).  For the aggregate total for the bottom 50 percent this wealth of the fifth decile is offset by the negative net wealth of the first decile.

While we might typically characterise the bottom 10 percent of the wealth distribution as the “poorest” this may not necessarily be the best descriptor.  Those with a negative net wealth have liabilities that exceed their assets.  It is likely that this is the result of borrowing used to acquire assets or borrowing that will help acquire assets in the future. 

Someone who has taken out loans to help them through third-level education may have a negative net wealth.  Someone who has taken out a loan to help start a business may have a negative net wealth.  A homeowner with a mortgage may have a negative net wealth if the value of the property drops below the amount owed on the mortgage.  In time, we would expect many in such circumstances to move up the wealth distribution.

Indeed, this would have happened to many homeowners who found themselves in negative equity following the 2008 crash.  And it appears that the estimation techniques used in the Credit Suisse reports have not fully factored in the reduction in negative equity of Irish homeowners.

For 2013, the Credit Suisse report puts the wealth share of the bottom 10 percent in Ireland at –3.5 percent. This was close to the nadir for house prices, but as shown above for 2021, the wealth share of the bottom 10 percent is only estimated to have improved to –2.8 percent in the Credit Suisse reports.

An alternative source of wealth distribution data for Ireland is the Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS) undertaken by the CSO.  This actually is where the –3.5 percent net wealth share for the bottom decile in Ireland for 2013 comes from.  But the latest HFSC (for 2020) shows that the wealth share of the bottom 10 percent had increased to –0.6 percent.  In the 2018 HFCS, the CSO discussed the reasons for this:

In 2018, 8.0% of households in the first net wealth decile were owner occupied, compared to almost 80% in 2013. This large change is due to the increase in residential property prices over this time and the consequent movement of people out of negative equity. In 2013, 31.9% of all HMRs owned with a mortgage were in negative equity, whereas the 2018 rate is 4.1%. In 2013, just over three in four (75.8%) households in the bottom wealth decile were in negative equity, compared to 5.8% in 2018.

For 2020, the CSO estimate that the wealth share of the bottom 50 percent was +7.8 percent. Using this would give a very different result compared to the +1.2 percent used to give Oxfam its headline.  Per estimates from the CSO, the net wealth of the bottom 50 percent of the wealth distribution in Ireland is many multiple times the net wealth of the Collison brothers.

In the press release, Oxfam use the soundbite that “the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting even poorer” and also exhorts that “the very existence of billionaires while out-of-control inequality rises, is damning proof of policy failure.”

The wealth figures for the Collison brothers is based on the assumption that they each retain a 10 percent stake in the online payments firm they founded, Stripe.  In a 2020 funding round, investors provided $600 million to Stripe and in return received 0.63 percent of the company.  This gives a value of $95 billion for the overall company and the $9.5 billion figure used for respective net wealth of the Collison brothers.  Recent estimates suggest the value of the company has declined to around $60 billion – still a huge sum.

That the Collisons have set up a business that is valued at tens of billions has made no one poorer.  Indeed, Stripe has yet to even make a profit. People have collected more in payments from the company (such as wages etc.) than the company has generated in revenue.  Reporting on a recent note to investors Bloomberg said:

The payments giant forecast adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $100 million this year, according to people familiar with the matter. That compares with a loss of about $80 million in 2022, when Stripe processed $800 billion, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing internal financial information.

Although loss-making in 2020, Stripe was valued at close to $100 billion by investors because of the expectation it would make profits in the future.  No one is poorer now due to profits that Stripe might make in the future.  And even if the profit is $100 million in 2023, it shows that these expectations still have a long way to go. It will be a success if the Collisons can achieve it.

The role of expectations is significant in the wealth valuations of those who top various rich lists.  A prominent name on such lists is Jeff Bezos.  Bezos maintains an ownership of around 10 percent in Amazon, the online retailing company he founded.  Amazon’s market capitalisation hit $1 trillion for the first time in early 2020.  This pushed Bezos to top of the rich lists. 

But as with the Collisons much of this was based on expectations.  In the 20 years to the end of 2019, Amazon had earned a cumulative net profit of $30 billion. Not per annum, in total.  Jeff Bezos will have received some of this $30 billion in dividends over the years but it would have been an insignificant contributor, in relative terms of course, to the factors that pushed his net wealth to near $200 billion in 2021.

The key factor was further increases in Amazon’s share price.  By the middle of 2021, Amazon’s market capitalisation was $1.9 trillion.  Bezos’s 10 percent stake gets us the $200 billion headlines.  Of course, there has been a bit of a change in expectations in the interim and now Amazon’s market capitalisation is around $950 billion – a reduction of $1 trillion.  This reduction is greater than Credit Suisse’s estimate of the net wealth of the entire Irish population ($920 billion).

If Jeff Bezos’s wealth has fallen by $100 billion (10% of $1 trillion) who has benefitted from it? If the rich are getting poorer are the poorer getting richer?  Of course, it is nonsense to look for such transfers.  Jeff Bezo’s wealth has fallen because the expectation of the profits Amazon might make in the future has fallen.

It is typical to talk of “wealth accumulation” when referring to those at the top of the wealth distribution.  But while it is certain that neither Jeff Bezos or the Collison brothers are stuck for money it is not the case that they have accumulated the vast fortunes that have pushed them to the top of the global and Irish rich lists (can we still include them in Irish rich lists if they no longer live here?).  Their wealth is driven by the valuations other people put on the companies they have founded.

So, do the Collisons have more wealth than half the population? Errmm, No.  While supporting figures can be found in the Credit Suisse Wealth Report, estimates from the CSO tell us the claim is well wide of the mark.  And is the Collisons founding of a company that is valued at $60 billion “a damning proof of policy failure”? Again, no. But their doing it is a cheap way for others to get headlines.

This is not say there aren’t issues with inequality, there certainly are and Oxfam is absolutely correct to draw attention to world’s poorest.  But, as noted elsewhere,  the living conditions of the world’s poorest are not affected by whether the stock market valuation of Amazon is $1,900 billion or $900 billion, or whether a funding round for Stripe values it at $60 billion or $95 billion. While good for headlines in the media, the rich list valuations should not be the object of our outrage.

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