While Average People Suffered, 5 Million People Became Millionaires Under COVID-19

The pandemic was and remains brutal for average people. But not for the rich: central bank policies created 5 million new millionaires during the pandemic. It's the latest sign that our economy is rigged for the wealthy.

(Nikolay Likomanov / Unsplash)

A new report from Credit Suisse has revealed that more than five million people have become millionaires over the course of the pandemic, while the number of people worth over $50 million increased by over a quarter. The main driver of this shocking increase in wealth has been rising equity and residential property prices, which increased aggregate household net worth to around $418.3 trillion. Meanwhile, more than half of the world’s population had less than $10,000 in net assets.

Most of the increase in wealth was concentrated in already wealthy countries, with the United States accounting for a third of the new millionaires. The number of millionaires in China is increasing and has now reached around one in two hundred; but in the United States, 8 percent of the population are now millionaires.

How is it that the countries worst affected by the pandemic were also those that registered some of the largest increases in wealth over the course of the last year? One reason stands out above all others: central bank asset purchases.

Over the course of the pandemic, central banks have pumped around $9 trillion worth of new money into the global financial system. This comes on top of the $10 trillion added between the financial crisis and the pandemic. The world is awash with central bank money, and it’s all flowing up rather than trickling down.

Central bankers initially argued that quantitative easing — as the policy of creating new money to purchase assets such as government bonds is known — would boost lending by providing commercial banks with more cash. Of course, the issue banks were facing in the wake of the financial crisis was not a lack of access to cash, but a lack of viable investment opportunities in the context of chronically deficient demand, exacerbated by austerity.

It ultimately became clear that QE worked, but not in the way we had initially been told. Rather than boosting lending, QE came to operate through a portfolio rebalancing effect — in essence, when governments purchased long-dated government debt, they provided private investors with cash that needed somewhere to go.

Investors responded by rebalancing their portfolios away from government bonds, which were providing negligible yields thanks to increased central bank demand, and toward other assets like equities, corporate bonds, and real estate.

In the United States, the result of this increased demand for equities was the longest bull run (a bout of optimism and rising stock prices) the world had ever seen. Cash flooding into high yield corporate bonds had also inflated a corporate debt bubble — it was so easy for even the most poorly managed companies to access cash that economists were pointing to the problem of the “zombie” corporation, which could only afford to service the interest payments on its outstanding debt.

The main impact of QE in the UK has been felt in the housing market, where prices have skyrocketed to far above where they were prior to the financial crisis of 2008 — particularly in London, the South East, and Manchester.

The pandemic has been a recession like no other — rather than falling, as they have during all previous recessions, house prices have risen. Thanks to the closure of offices and resulting emigration from cities, house prices in the countryside are now rising at a rate of around 14 percent per year next to 7 percent for urban areas.

What’s more, with interest rates at rock bottom and pensioners able to draw down their entire pensions in one go, many more older people have decided to purchase second homes to rent out to younger people. The Conservatives have created seven hundred thousand new landlords over the course of the last decade, shoring up their voter base while exacerbating the housing crisis.

Absent rent controls or a functioning social housing system, young people are being forced to pay extortionate amounts — often half to two thirds of their salaries — on rent just for the privilege of living within commuting distance of their jobs.

Meanwhile, huge international asset managers like Blackstone are taking advantage of the plentiful cash now available in the international financial system to buy up huge swathes of real estate to rent out themselves. The rise of the corporate landlord was first evident in the United States, then in Ireland, and now it is becoming increasingly visible in the UK.

In other words, the most powerful states in the capitalist world system are now in the business of creating millionaires. Undemocratic and unaccountable central banks are using the power of signories to inflate the fortunes of the wealthy; meanwhile the UK Treasury tries to prevent people from accessing sick pay.

The dramatic increases in the fortunes of the superrich during a pandemic in which millions have died and millions more have been pushed into poverty provide yet more evidence that we live in a warped economy and a sick society. But observing the irrationality of the current system is not enough; unless working people organize to hold the powerful to account, the capitalist state will continue to support the interests of the millionaires over the millions of people who work for them.