They say it takes money to make money, and Australia’s 2019 Rich List shows how accurate that cliche is.
Minimum-wage workers may be celebrating the Fair Work decision this week, but the wealthy have again left everyone else in their Bentleys’ dust.
While Australia’s lowest paid workers will see their pay packets grow 3 per cent from July 1, Australia’s richest increased their wealth by more than 20 per cent over the past year.
And it’s not a one-off. Australia’s well-to-do have consistently increased their wealth much faster than the rest of the nation.
Business Review Weekly started the Rich List back in 1983 with the top 100, but expanded it to 200 the next year.
Back in 1984, Australia’s 200 richest people had a combined wealth of $6.4 billion.
The Australian Financial Review has since taken over the list from the now-defunct BRW, and this year’s list reveals a combined wealth of $342 billion.
That is a staggering 53-fold increase in wealth for the top 200 in just 35 years.
The 0.001 per cent
Of course, they’re not all the same 200 people who have grown this wealth. Only 13 people have stayed on the list every year since it started and there have been many – often high-profile – casualties along the way.
But the Rich List presents a unique insight into wealth inequality at the extremes.
ABS data going back to the late 1980s shows Australian households have increased their collective wealth nearly eight-fold since 1989.
That sounds impressive until you look at the rich listers, who have done twice as well over the same period, boosting their fortunes 16 times over in three decades.
Of course, during that time, Australia’s population has increased from 17 to 25-plus million people, meaning the general population’s wealth is now also spread among about 50 per cent more people.
To put it another way, in 1989 the richest 200 Australians held about 1.6 per cent of the nation’s wealth. Currently they control nearly 3.4 per cent.
As one expert I spoke to put it: “The rich get richer, and the poor get richer more slowly.”
The Gini is out of the bottle
Compare that to the official picture on inequality in Australia, where the Productivity Commission assured the nation that “over nearly three decades, inequality has risen slightly in Australia”.
This analysis rests heavily on something called the Gini coefficient.
It’s a mathematical formula that measures the gap between the income or wealth distribution that would happen if everything was evenly distributed.
If the gap is zero, then there is perfect equality in the distribution of income or wealth — everyone gets exactly the same. But if it is 1, then a single person earns or owns everything.
The closer to zero, the more equal the society.
On this measure, Australia has a reasonably equal distribution of income. Once taxes and government payments to low-income earners are factored in, the nation’s Gini coefficient is just above 0.3. That’s about mid-table for developed nations.
While income inequality has been growing over the past couple of decades, Australia’s hasn’t grown quite as fast on average.
Middle class fall behind as wealth gap grows
Wealth is a different story. While Australia ranks eighth among developed countries for the equality of wealth distribution, the Gini coefficient is around 0.6 — that means the distribution of wealth is twice as unequal as the distribution of income.
And it has become worse over the past decade or so, with a 7 per cent increase in wealth inequality between 2003/04 and 2015/16.
Some experts say, given the size of Australia’s economy and the wealth of its middle and upper classes, the absence of 200 super rich is unlikely to shift the dial much on the measures of wealth inequality.
But others disagree. In an article published earlier this month, Christopher Sheil and Frank Stilwell used OECD and ABS data to estimate that the Australia’s richest 10 per cent now hold more than 50 per cent of the nation’s wealth, a share that increased substantially over the four years to 2016.
Almost all of that increase went to the top 1 per cent, which increased their share of the nation’s wealth from 14.2 to 16.2 per cent.
In contrast, both the middle-class segments recorded a declining share of wealth — collectively, the majority of households between the 40th and 90th percentile own 47.1 per cent of the wealth, down from 49.1 per cent in 2012.
As for the poorest 40 per cent of households, they remain stuck with just 2.8 per cent of the nation’s wealth between them.
“Wealth inequality in Australia is evolving along two fault lines,” note Sheil and Stilwell.
“The bottom 40 per cent of Australian households have practically no share of the rising total.
“Meanwhile, the middle 50 per cent of households have a declining share relative to the top 10 per cent, and particularly relative to the top 1 per cent.”
And the AFR Rich List seems to confirm that everyone is falling behind relative to the top 0.001 per cent.