The ups, downs, crashes and comebacks of the richest people in America.
It’s been a great run for the ultra-rich. Forbes technically published its first list of the wealthiest Americans all the way back in 1918, when B.C. Forbes surveyed Wall Street bankers to estimate the nation’s 30 largest fortunes. But we’ve been tracking the subject full-time since 1982, when we debuted The Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the country. Back then, the 400 most affluent Americans held a combined $92 billion. After four decades of the rich getting richer, today the top 400 are worth a staggering $4.5 trillion—making them nearly 50 times better off than their 1982 counterparts, far outpacing the consumer price index’s near tripling and the S&P 500’s 36x jump over the same time period.
Here’s a look at how the richest people in America have stockpiled, spent and squandered their billions since the Forbes “rich list” began:
Total wealth: $92 billion ($260 billion in today’s dollars)
Cutoff: $100 million ($280 million today)
Number of billionaires: 13
Richest person: Daniel Ludwig, $2 billion
The first Forbes 400 hits newsstands in September 1982, after more than a year of reporting, spanning thousands of interviews across the nation. It’s an unprecedented look into wealth and power in America. There’s old money: Rockefellers, Mellons and du Ponts. There’s new money: Sam Walton, Steve Jobs and Yoko Ono. There’s even illicit money: “The Mob’s Accountant” Meyer Lansky makes the cut, as does criminal financier Robert Vesco, fugitive “without a country, believed living on yacht.”
The richest of all: Daniel Ludwig, who has quietly amassed a $2 billion fortune in shipbuilding and real estate. He declines to comment. Others are more vocal. Donald Trump protests that he and his father have more than twice what we estimate. “Every goddamn stockbroker in the United States has called me,” complains media millionaire Malcolm Borg. “Being a vain old man, I was terrifically impressed,” confesses Donald Reynolds, another media mogul. “I read it all the way through and am looking forward to the next one.”
Total wealth: $272.5 billion ($560 billion today)
Cutoff: $260 million ($530 million today)
Number of billionaires: 66
Richest person: John Kluge, $5.6 billion
The Forbes 400 becomes America’s most elite club as the go-go 1980s roar, with the minimum net worth to make the list steadily climbing to $275 million. It all begins crashing down in 1990, when the cutoff drops for the first time ever, to $260 million, as the country plunges into recession. “This year all kinds of things went down,” we write. “Real estate, media, banks, public stocks, private companies, you name it.”
Donald Trump falls off the list for the first time, as does newspaperman Ralph M. Ingersoll—both saddled with huge debt from junk bond binges. In all, 243 list members’ fortunes either stagnate or decline from the year before. Still, two dozen others join the ranks for the first time, including auto magnate Roger Penske and a young Steve Ballmer. And the pain is short-lived: a new generation of tech billionaires soon take over the list—and the world.
Total wealth: $1 trillion ($1.6 trillion today)
Cutoff: $625 million ($1 billion today)
Number of billionaires: 268
Richest person: Bill Gates, $85 billion
As the planet goes digital, a new class of billionaires cashes in. The total wealth of The Forbes 400 swells to $1 trillion, as youngsters like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Michael Dell catapult to the top of the ranking. One-third of the year’s newcomers have made their money in tech, with people like Mark Cuban and eBay’s Pierre Omidyar replacing a previous generation of wealth—including heirs to the du Pont, Heinz ketchup and Campbell’s soup riches. Another notable new face: Ty Warner, who’s worth $5 billion as his Beanie Babies sweep the nation in what is often considered the first internet craze.
“It’s weird and unreal—and unsustainable,” Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang tells Forbes of his lightning-fast fortune in 1998. “It could all go away tomorrow.” Indeed, by 2002 the dot-com bubble bursts, wiping billions off The Forbes 400’s wealth. Some would fall out of the ranks forever, including Monte Zweben, who lost 98% of his fortune in less than a year when shares of his newly-public software firm nosedived, and John Little, who made the cover of Forbes in 1999 but fell off the 400 two years later as his Portal Software cratered.
Total wealth: $1.25 trillion ($1.7 trillion today)
Cutoff: $1 billion ($1.4 billion today)
Number of billionaires: 400
Richest person: Bill Gates, $53 billion
No longer a club for mere millionaires, The Forbes 400 cutoff surges to $1 billion amid booming markets. Oil billionaires like Chesapeake Energy founders Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward join the list, as does Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Lehman Brothers chief executive Richard Fuld.
“A real estate collapse may be on the horizon,” we write, “but for now it’s clear skies for the land barons of The Forbes 400.” The storm comes quickly: The market topples in 2007, sending the U.S. economy spiraling into a historic recession. Burdened by heavy subprime mortgage exposure, Citigroup crumbles during the crisis, eventually knocking former chairman Sandy Weill off the list. So goes real estate tycoon Harry Macklowe, who had snapped up seven New York City skyscrapers in a $7 billion, debt-fueled mega-deal in early 2007 and was soon forced to give up many of his trophy properties to cover his debts. He has never made it back to the ranks.
Total wealth: $1.37 trillion ($1.7 trillion today)
Cutoff: $1 billion ($1.25 billion today)
Number of billionaires: 400
Richest person: Bill Gates, $54 billion
After a rough 2009—Bill Gates lost $7 billion; Warren Buffett lost $10 billion—things are looking up for the richest people in the country. They’re 8% richer than the year prior overall, far outperforming the S&P 500’s 1% gain. A total of 16 new faces make The Forbes 400, including Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin (thanks to a legal settlement with Mark Zuckerberg) and Elaine Wynn (thanks to a divorce settlement with Steve Wynn).
Forbes charters a Gulfstream to fly rapper (and future billionaire) Jay-Z to Omaha, Nebraska, to talk wealth and philanthropy over strawberry malts with Buffett and Steve Forbes. “Jay said it perfectly when he talked about how he’s in there recording for himself, and the money comes afterwards,” Buffett remarks. “I would be doing what I do now, and I would’ve done it in the past, if the payoff had been in seashells, or sharks’ teeth, or anything else.”
Total wealth: $2.34 trillion ($2.7 trillion today)
Cutoff: $1.7 billion ($2 billion today)
Number of billionaires: 400
Richest person: Bill Gates, $76 billion
Big money rushes into politics. A full year ahead of the 2015 election, 83 members of The Forbes 400 have already poured some of their riches into a presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton leads, with 33 billionaire backers, followed by Marco Rubio (with 21) and Jeb Bush (19).
Of course another 400 member is taking a more hands-on approach: Forbes hits Trump Tower to sit down with Donald Trump, a few months into his headline-busting campaign. “I’m running for President,” he says. “I’m worth much more than you have me down [for]. I don’t look good, to be honest. I mean, I look better if I’m worth $10 billion than if I’m worth $4 billion.” We settle on $4.5 billion, well below what Trump claims but still the richest he has ever been (and he still hasn’t surpassed it, thanks to his own doing)—good enough to make Trump the 121st-richest person in America, and one of 202 people whose fortunes rose on the 2015 list amid a strong economy.
Total wealth: $4.5 trillion
Cutoff: $2.9 billion
Number of billionaires: 400
Richest person: Jeff Bezos, $201 billion
Talk about stiff competition. It’s never been tougher to make the list, with the cutoff skyrocketing some $800 million in just one year—too high a bar for longtime list members Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump, who have each been pushed out of the ranks. The 400 richest people in America hold $4.5 trillion in wealth, some $4.2 trillion more than this group held in 1982 even after factoring in inflation—a massive 1,600% inflation-adjusted gain in net worth for the ultra-wealthy over the past four decades. The median American family’s net worth, meanwhile, has only risen by 23% over a similar span.
Still, between death and the dynamism of markets, only a handful of members of the original Forbes 400 remain on the list. Plus, old fortunes continue to dissipate: this year, 70.5% of the list is self-made, compared to about 37% back in 1982. And this year’s 44 newcomers offer a glimpse of the future: electric vehicle-maker RJ Scaringe joins the list, as does Robinhood cofounder Baiju Bhatt and six cryptocurrency moguls, including Sam Bankman-Fried—at 29, one of the youngest list members ever, and, at $22.5 billion, the richest self-made newcomer in Forbes 400 history.