Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos at the Schick Xtreme III Tennis Challenge in Seattle, Washington, in 2001. | Robert Sorbo/Sygma via Getty Images
Losing billions hasn’t erased the wild gains they made since the start of the pandemic.
It’s been a gloomy year for the economy, with high inflation and recession anxieties leading to sharp downturns in the stock market. Tech companies have suffered some of the largest shocks: Netflix’s stock is down more than 60 percent so far this year; Meta’s has fallen about 58 percent. According to Google Finance, Amazon and Google stocks have both dropped around 30 percent year-to-date in 2022.
With tech stocks plummeting, the industry’s billionaire leaders have seen losses to their personal fortunes too. That’s one of the takeaways of this year’s Forbes 400 list, an annual accounting of the top 400 richest Americans. Tech billionaires have lost a collective $315 billion since last year.
But while the tumult that tech companies are facing right now is very real, tech leaders are doing just fine. The vast majority are still richer than they were before the pandemic, when they saw their wealth reach unprecedented heights.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos lost $50 billion in 2022, leaving him with a net worth of around $151 billion, according to Forbes. That still means he’s 32 percent richer than he was in 2019, when he had $115 billion. Microsoft founder Bill Gates lost $28 billion, but that leaves him about as rich as he was before the pandemic, with a net worth of $106 billion. Google founder Sergey Brin is about $35.5 billion richer compared to 2019.
Forbes’s methodology puts some tech-adjacent billionaires in other categories, such as “automotive” for Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk or “media & entertainment” for Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg. But of the 65 billionaires on the Forbes 400 who are categorized under tech — which includes the likes of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — 56 are richer than they were in 2019, despite the current downturn.
“On the one hand, $315 billion is a lot,” said Chase Peterson-Withorn, deputy editor of Forbes’s wealth team, which compiles and edits the Forbes 400 list. “But they’re all doing fine. These are people who are extremely wealthy.”
Due to the sheer size of their fortunes, “tech leaders probably swing more than other people in dollar terms,” he continued.
Billionaire net worth can fluctuate quite a bit even in a single day, and estimates can also differ depending on how you measure wealth (Bloomberg has its own Billionaires Index, for example). The Forbes 400 captures a snapshot of someone’s wealth on a particular day. For 2022’s list, Forbes compared September 3, 2021, to September 2, 2022.
The biggest exception to tech billionaires’ pandemic gains is Zuckerberg, who lost almost $77 billion in the last year and is now worth $57.7 billion compared to $69.6 billion in 2019 — about a 17 percent decline. Dustin Moskovitz, who co-founded Facebook with Zuckerberg, has also seen his fortune shrink, from $11.6 billion in 2019 to $8.1 billion in 2022.
Eric Yuan, the founder of Zoom, has lost money too, as more workers return to the office and rely less on virtual meetings. But it isn’t some catastrophic long-term loss, especially considering just how much Zoom’s value has fallen — from a peak price of $588.84 per share in October 2020, it’s currently trading at around $75. Forbes doesn’t have data on Yuan’s wealth in 2019, but on September 2 of that year, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimates that he was worth around $4.78 billion. The Forbes 400 has Yuan’s 2022 net worth at $3.9 billion.
For the most part, tech billionaires have fattened their fortunes in the last three years. The best example of the pandemic tech boom is Elon Musk. By the end of 2020, still deep in the throes of Covid-19 lockdowns and business disruptions, Musk’s net worth had increased by a massive 242 percent compared to the year before.
“He was the first person that we’ve ever tracked worth more than $300 billion,” said Peterson-Withorn.
Musk is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Twitter after backing out of buying the company. It will head to trial in October and could cost him a lot of money, especially if the court rules that Musk must follow through with it. But paying $44 billion for Twitter is still less than the $48 billion he gained between 2019 and 2020 alone.
“We saw astronomical gains during the pandemic,” said Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. “We could consider this more a minor adjustment in an overall surge of wealth over just three years.”
In fact, some tech billionaires have gotten richer even if they’re giving billions and billions away. The ultrawealthy are donating more dollars than ever, yet their wealth still piles up. MacKenzie Scott has given away more than $12 billion since 2019, including a whopping $275 million gift to Planned Parenthood this year that was the largest single donation to the organization in its history. Yet even with Amazon stock, her primary source of wealth, losing about 30 percent of its value in 2022, she’s still richer than she was in 2019. Bill and Melinda French Gates gave away $15 billion in 2021, and Gates recently gifted another $20 billion to his foundation — but he’s still worth around the same that he was in 2019.
All of this speaks to the incredible growth that tech has enjoyed in the last few years, a growth that some financial analysts predicted would be unsustainable, believing that the stocks were overvalued.
“[People] think the past is representative of the future, and confuse past performance with investment quality going forward,” Avanidhar Subrahmanyam, a professor of finance at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, told Recode over email. “It is counterproductive. Something with tearaway past performance is more likely to be overvalued.”
“I agree that some stocks did become unsustainably overvalued precisely because of this bias,” he said.
Workers have borne the brunt of the consequences of this tech downturn, with at least 40,000 employees in the sector getting laid off this year. But for Big Tech’s leaders and investors, this slump is a blip compared to what they’ve amassed during the pandemic.
“It’s almost like their wealth was supercharged by the conditions of the pandemic,” Collins told Recode. “There’s generally been a concern about inequality, but people are starting to see how delinked the billionaire class has become from the rest of society.” According to an Oxfam report published early this year, the world’s billionaires grew $5 trillion wealthier between March 2020 and March 2021.
Even when there are setbacks, billionaires seem to come out ahead in the long run. That’s the scale and gravitational pull of their wealth and power. Maybe it looks like they’ve lost a lot of money in the past year — or, seen another way, they just haven’t gained as much as they may have hoped in their wildest dreams.