After four years of Jeff Bezos topping Forbes’ annual list of the World’s Billionaires, there’s a new number one: Elon Musk. Forbes estimates that 50-year-old Musk, the CEO of both electric car company Tesla and rocket firm SpaceX, is worth $219 billion — $48 billion more than Bezos, who comes in at number two. Even after selling billions of dollars of Tesla stock late last year, and owing taxes on gains from those sales, Musk is an estimated $68 billion richer than a year ago. (For the 2022 list, Forbes calculated net worths using stock prices and currency exchange rates from March 11, 2022.)
Bezos’ stint as the world’s richest person was short-lived compared to that of his predecessor, Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Gates occupied the top spot for all but five years from 1995 to 2017 – Warren Buffet stole the show for a year with savvy bets during the financial crisis of 2008, and Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helu matched Bezos’ four-year stretch from 2010 to 2013.
It also took Bezos twice as long as Musk to climb the rankings. After taking Amazon public in May 1997, Bezos debuted on the list in 1998 with a $1.6 billion fortune. Musk’s first appearance on Forbes’ billionaires list was in 2012, with a net worth of $2 billion.
Two years after his electric car maker went public in 2010, it looked like an IPO for his rocket producer was also imminent. But a decade later, SpaceX remains privately held, with shares trading hands in the secondary market at a valuation north of $100 billion last October – up from $74 billion in February. And while Bezos may have personally left earth before him (Musk still hasn’t flown to space), Musk’s aerospace firm launched the world’s first all-civilian crew into orbit last fall.
But Musk owes his status as the world’s richest person to Tesla’s soaring (and volatile) stock price. He owns roughly 21% of the company but has pledged more than half his stake as collateral for loans. Forbes estimates his shares and vested options were worth $183 billion as of March 11, even after discounting his stake to take the loans into account.
While Musk has been on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires for a decade, his net worth really took off in the last two years.
When Forbes finalized its 2020 World’s Billionaires List on March 18, 2020, Tesla’s stock price stood at $72.24 per share. Musk ranked 31st in the world, with a net worth of $24.6 billion ($88.4 billion behind Bezos). A year later, Musk trailed Bezos by only $26 billion after Tesla’s stock price increased more than eightfold, boosting Musk’s fortune by $126 billion–setting the record for the biggest one-year gain of any billionaire Forbes has ever tracked.
Already criticized by some analysts and investors (as well as Musk himself) for being priced too high, Tesla shares have continued to climb, gaining another 33% in the last year, despite widespread automotive chip shortages (Tesla produces its chips in-house with a new material technology called silicon carbide that reduces reliance on pure silicon), stricter regulation of Chinese user data the company utilizes to refine its self-driving systems (Tesla set up a new data center in the country to store that information locally) and the recall of more than 475,000 vehicles in December 2021 due to two separate safety issues and more than 285,000 of its cars in China in June 2021.
In late September 2021, as Tesla shares soared, Musk overtook Bezos to become the richest person in the world – and the third (after Bernard Arnault and Bezos) ever to be worth at least $200 billion. “I’m sending a giant statue of the digit ‘2’ to Jeffrey B., along with a silver medal,” Musk wrote in a short email to Forbes when reached for comment.
As Tesla stock kept climbing, Musk briefly became the first (and second) person ever to be worth $300 billion or more, as Tesla’s market capitalization surpassed $1 trillion not once but twice – in November 2021 after car rental giant Hertz announced it was buying 100,000 Teslas for a reported $4.2 billion and again in January when Tesla beat analysts’ projections for 2021 deliveries.
The stock’s volatility can be partially attributed to Musk’s typically erratic behavior on Twitter, where he recently challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to single combat after SpaceX began sending telecom gear to Ukraine.
After polling his followers in November, Musk unloaded more than $16 billion of the EV maker’s shares over two months, likely resulting (as Musk claimed after Senator Elizabeth Warren accused him of “freeloading off everyone else”) in the largest-ever one-year tax bill for an individual (and reportedly prompting a Securities and Exchange Commission probe of him and his brother Kimbal for insider trading). He’d previously sold Tesla stock on only two occasions, in 2010 and 2016. Tesla’s shares peaked at $1,229.91 a piece on November 4, two days before Musk’s Twitter poll. By Forbes’ measurement date on March 11, Tesla shares had fallen 35% to $795.35.
Even with all the noise, the 12 months since Forbes’ 2021 billionaires list were undoubtedly stellar for Tesla, with its shares up by a third while the rest of the tech-heavy Nasdaq (including Bezos’ Amazon) retreated slightly below March 2021 levels.
What the next year will bring for Musk is anyone’s guess – analysts’ average price target of $949.22 per share for Tesla falls in a wide range, from $250 to $1,480 per share. But electric vehicles aren’t going away anytime soon, and Tesla retains its first-mover advantage.
“We’re really seeing an [electric vehicle] arms race play out,” says Dan Ives, managing director, and senior equity analyst at Wedbush. “Tesla is years ahead, from a battery technology perspective…but there’s a target on Tesla’s back.”
Musk has at least one more big payday coming soon. Of the 127.7 million Tesla options he’s been awarded in the last decade, 19.5 million remain unvested, worth $14.3 billion as of March 11 (not included in Forbes’ net worth estimate because they haven’t yet vested). But all of those options could vest as soon as April if the company achieves certain performance milestones.
While most of Musk’s wealth would still remain tied to Tesla’s share price, he did tweet in December that he was “thinking of quitting [his] jobs & becoming an influencer full-time.” Tesla stock still rose the next day.