Global wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a small wealthy elite. These wealthy individuals have generated and sustained their vast riches through their interests and activities in a few important economic sectors, including finance and pharmaceuticals/healthcare. Companies from these sectors spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying to create a policy environment that protects and enhances their interests further. The most prolific lobbying activities in the US are on budget and tax issues; public resources that should be directed to benefit the whole population, rather than reflecting the interests of powerful lobbyists.
1. Concentrated Global Wealth
Data from Credit Suisse shows that since 2010, the richest 1% of adults in the world have been increasing their share of total global wealth. Figure 1 shows that 2010 marks an inflection point in the share of global wealth going to this group.
In 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99%. Almost all of that 52% is owned by those included in the richest 20%, leaving just 5.5% for the remaining 80% of people in the world. If this trend continues, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people in just two years, as shown on Figure 2, with the wealth share of the top 1% exceeding 50% by 2016.
The very richest of the top 1%, the billionaires on the Forbes list, have seen their wealth accumulate even faster over this period. In 2010, world’s 80 richest people had a net wealth of $1.3tn. By 2014, the 80 people who top the Forbes rich list had a collective wealth of $1.9tn; an increase of $600bn in just 4 years, or 50% in nominal terms. Meanwhile, between 2002 and 2010 the total wealth of the poorest half of the world in current US$ had been increasing more or less at the same rate as that of billionaires; however since 2010, it has been decreasing over this time.
The wealth of these 80 individuals is now the same as that owned by the bottom 50% of the global population, such that 3.5 billion people share between them the same amount of wealth as that of these extremely wealthy 80 people. As the wealth of everyone else has not been increasing at the same rate as that for the top 80, the share of total wealth owned by this group has increased and the gap between the very rich and everyone else has also been widening. As a result, the number of billionaires who have the same amount of wealth as that of the bottom half of the planet has declined rapidly over the past five years. In 2010, it took 388 billionaires to equal the wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population; by 2014, the figure had fallen to just 80 billionaires.
2. Sustaining the Riches
In 2014, there were 1,645 people listed by Forbes as being billionaires. Almost 30% of them (492 people) are citizens of the USA. Over one-third of billionaires started from a position of wealth, with 34% of them having inherited some or all of their riches. This group is predominately male and greying; with 85% of these people aged over 50 years and 90% of them male.
There are a few important economic sectors that have contributed to the accumulation of wealth of these billionaires. In March 2014, 20% of them (321) were listed as having interests or activities in, or relating to, the financial and insurance sectors, the most commonly cited source of wealth for billionaires on this list. The accumulated wealth of billionaires from these sectors has increased from $1.01tn to $1.16tn in a single year; a nominal increase of $150bn, or 15%.
Between 2013 and 2014, billionaires listed as having interests and activities in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors saw the biggest increase in their collective wealth. Twenty-nine individuals joined the ranks of the billionaires between March 2013 and March 2014 (five dropped off the list), increasing the total number from 66 billionaires to 90, in 2014 making up 5% of the total billionaires on the list. The collective wealth of billionaires with interests in this sector increased from $170bn to $250bn, a 47% increase and the largest percentage increase in wealth of the different sectors on the Forbes list.
3. Spending on Lobbying
The biggest and most successful companies from both the finance and insurance sectors and the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors achieve extremely high profits and therefore command substantial resources which they use to compensate their owners and investors, helping to accumulate their personal wealth. But these resources could also potentially be used for economic and political influence. One way that companies explicitly use their resources for influence is through the direct lobbying of governments, particularly on issues and policies which affect their business interests.
During 2013, the finance sector spent more than $400m on lobbying in the USA alone, 12% of the total amount spent by all sectors on lobbying in the US in 2013. In addition, during the election cycle of 2012, $571m was spent by companies from this sector on campaign contributions.
The financial sector is the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties. Billionaires from the US make up approximately half of the total billionaires on the Forbes list with interests in the financial sector. The number of US finance billionaires increased from 141 to 150, and their collective wealth from $535bn to $629bn; an increase of $94bn, or 17% in a single year. In the EU, an estimated $150m is spent by financial sector lobbyists towards EU institutions every year.
Between March 2013 and March 2014, the number of billionaires in the EU with activities and interests in the financial sector increased from 31 to 39, an increase in collective wealth of $34bn, to $128bn. While corporations from the finance and insurance sectors spend their resources on lobbying to pursue their own interests, and as a result go on to increase their profits and the associated wealth of those individuals involved in the sector, ordinary people continue to pay the price of the global financial crisis.
While the financial sector has recovered well after bailout packages, median income levels in the USA are yet to return to their pre-crisis levels. The ongoing cost to the taxpayer for “systematically important financial institutions” — in other words those that are too big to fail — has been estimated by the IMF to be $83bn every year.
During 2013, the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors spent more than $487m on lobbying in the US alone. This was more than was spent by any other sector in the US, representing 15% of $3.2bn total lobbying expenditures in 2013. In addition, during the election cycle of 2012, $260m was spent by this sector on campaign contributions.
Twenty-two of the 90 pharmaceutical and healthcare billionaires are US citizens. At least $50m is spent by the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry on lobbying each year in the EU, where 20 of the 90 billionaires who made their money from pharmaceuticals and healthcare reside, and who together increased their wealth in the last year by $28bn. While millions are being spent on lobbying by pharmaceutical and healthcare companies and billions being made by individuals associated with these companies, a health crisis has erupted in West Africa. The Ebola virus has been threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014.
Companies have responded positively to the Ebola crisis: some pharmaceutical companies are investing in research to find a vaccine, the full costs of which are not yet known. The three pharmaceutical companies that are members of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) and that have made the largest contribution to the Ebola relief effort, have collectively donated more than $3m in cash and medical products. But the amount of money that has been spent on Ebola and other activities that have a broader benefit to society needs to be looked at in the context of their expenditure on corporate lobbying to influence for their own interests. These three companies together spent more than $18m on lobbying activities in the US during 2013.
To put the funding for the Ebola crisis in perspective, the World Bank estimates that the economic cost to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was $356m in output forgone in 2014, and a further $815m in 2015 if the epidemic is slow to be contained.
The largest increase in wealth between 2013 and 2014 by a single pharma-related billionaire could pay the entire $1.17bn cost for 2014–15 three times over. Stefano Pessina increased his net worth by $4bn, from $6.4bn to $10.4bn in a single year; the largest single increase in wealth of all the billionaires listed with pharmaceutical and healthcare interests.
4. Lobbying is on Budget and Tax Issues
The billions that are spent by companies on lobbying, giving them direct access to policy and lawmakers in Washington and Brussels, is a calculated investment. The expectation is that these billions will deliver policies that create a more favourable and profitable business environment, which will more than compensate for the lobbying costs.
In the US, the two issues which most lobbying is reported against are the federal budget and appropriations and taxes. These are the public resources, which companies are aiming to directly influence for their own benefit, using their substantial cash resources. Lobbying on tax issues in particular can directly undermine public interests, where a reduction in the tax burden to companies results in less money for delivering essential public services.
5. Rising Inequality
In October 2014, Oxfam launched its ‘Even It Up’ campaign, calling for governments, institutions and corporations to tackle extreme inequality. This briefing provides further evidence that we must build a fairer economic and political system that values every citizen. Oxfam is calling on world leaders, including those gathered at the 2015 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, to address the factors that have led to today’s inequality explosion and to implement policies that redistribute money and power from the few to the many.
- Make governments work for citizens and tackle extreme inequality
- Promote women economic equality and women rights
- Pay workers a living wage and close the gap with skyrocketing executive reward
- Share the tax burden fairly to level the playing field
- Close international tax loopholes and fill holes in tax governance
- Achieve universal free public services by 2020
- Change the global system for research and development (R&D) and pricing of medicines so that everyone has access to appropriate and affordable medicines
- Implement a universal social protection floor
- Target development finance at reducing inequality and poverty, and strengthening the compact between citizens and their government.