The likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould -- the robber barons of the late 19th century -- might feel right at home in today's economy.
The coffers of the uber-rich have exploded since the Great Recession, reaching a level "possibly not seen for almost a century," according to a new report from Credit Suisse Research. The top 1 percent has more than made up for the losses it suffered during the slump, when its control of world wealth slipped about 4 percentage points to just under 45 percent in 2007, the report noted.
The world's richest citizens, the study found, now own about one-half of global wealth.
That means that the ultrawealthy have already reached a tipping point predicted by Oxfam earlier this year, when the charity forecast that the world's wealthiest 1 percent would control half the world's assets by 2016. It's no wonder American workers and policymakers are concerned about the trend: The wealthiest are thriving at a time when everyone else -- from the middle class on downward -- are making do with less each year.
The report's findings weren't reassuring on how the rise in inequality is hurting America's middle class. The study noted that "the middle class in North America has less than average wealth, the only region for which this is true."
"The middle class in the United States is also unusual in having a particularly low share of the country's wealth, which at 19.6 percent is considerably less than its share of the adult population," the report found. "This is because the middle-class wealth share is squeezed by the exceptionally high wealth of the 12 percent of adults who are beyond the middle class."
What's happened to the once-fabled American middle class, the economic backbone of a country that now appears to have osteoporosis?
Even though America isn't alone in having a middle class feeling the squeeze, that's small comfort. Globally, the ranks of the middle class shrank during the recession, and they still haven't recovered to their 2007 level, the report found.
The downside to the world's growing inequality could be severe, ranging from lower economic growth to instability in regions where the poor and middle class can't find jobs or feel their standard of living is at risk. The ratings agency Standard & Poor's last year warned that America's income gap was reaching an "extreme" threshold that could dampen the country's long-term economic growth.
Given that the Credit Suisse report focuses on tracking the fortunes of the world's wealthiest as well as global median wealth, it doesn't examine too deeply how widening inequality might play out politically or economically. Still, the investment bank noted that one reason for the expanding fortunes of the top 1 percent is due to the recent rise in asset valuations, such as equities and real estate.
That jibes with the research of economist Thomas Piketty, the author of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," which found that the rate of return on capital has outpaced the rate of economic growth. When that happens over an extended period of time, the wealthy can see their riches accumulate, while inequality grows worse.
With the richest 1 percent now owning half the world's assets, the rest of the income distribution isn't coming out ahead. The bottom 71 percent of the world's population controls just 3 percent of the globe's wealth, giving each person in that lowest level less than $10,000 per person in assets. The middle 21 percent own 12.5 percent of the world's wealth, or less than $100,000 per person.
The second-richest group represents 7.4 percent of the global population, but it controls 39.4 percent of assets, or as much as $1 million per person.
With the surging fortunes of the world's richest people, a new category has emerged: the "ultra-high net worth individual." About 120,000 people, with assets of more than $50 million, qualify for this group. About half of the world's ultra high net worth population lives in the U.S.
According to Credit Suisse, it's not citizenship so much as lifestyle that unites this group.
High net worth and ultra-high net worth "tend to share more similar lifestyles, for instance, participating in the same global markets for luxury goods, even when they reside in different continents," the report noted. "The wealth portfolios of these individuals are also likely to be more similar, with a focus on financial assets and, in particular, equities, bonds and other securities traded in international markets."