NEW YORK • Three of the world's richest people have achieved staggering new levels of personal wealth.
The net worth of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos eclipsed US$200 billion (S$273 billion) on Wednesday as shares of the e-commerce giant climbed to a record. Forbes said it made the 56-year-old the world's first-ever person to amass such a fortune.
The move simultaneously pushed his former wife MacKenzie Scott, 50, to the brink of becoming the world's richest woman, just behind L'Oreal heiress Francoise Bettencourt Meyers.
Mr Elon Musk, meanwhile, extended an extraordinary stretch of wealth gains to become a centibillionaire. Tesla shares rallied on Wednesday, pushing his net worth to US$101 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a listing of the world's 500 richest people.
Tech companies boosted the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite indexes to new highs for a fourth straight day, buoyed by news that the Federal Reserve is likely to keep short-term interest rates near zero for at least five years.
The gains by Mr Bezos and Mr Musk represent just the latest high-water mark for wealth accumulation in a topsy-turvy year defined by both surging markets and catastrophic human and economic loss.
The world's 500 richest people have gained US$809 billion so far this year, a 14 per cent increase since January, even as the global coronavirus pandemic caused a record drop in gross domestic product and millions of lost jobs.
The rising income inequality has provoked sharp responses from many progressive politicians and critics on the left. United States Senator Bernie Sanders earlier this month introduced legislation to tax "extreme" wealth gains during the coronavirus crisis.
"We cannot continue to allow billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to become obscenely rich while millions of Americans face eviction, hunger and economic desperation," Mr Sanders said on Wednesday in a statement. "It's time to fundamentally change our national priorities."
Others view their massive wealth as justified, saying they have earned it through the creation of singular businesses. "When you look at Musk and Bezos, it's understated to say that in their own ways, they've changed the world," said Mr Thomas Hayes, chairman of Great Hill Capital.
The surge in wealth is especially concentrated in the upper ranks of the billionaire index and has been fuelled largely by tech stocks, which have been on a tear as the pandemic drives more people online. That also includes a rise in the number of retail investors buying stocks.
Mr Musk, 49, now one of four centibillionaires in the world, has seen his fortune grow by US$73.6 billion this year, a jump still smaller than Mr Bezos', who is up by US$87.1 billion. The net worth of Facebook's Mr Mark Zuckerberg topped US$100 billion earlier this month. On Wednesday alone, it rose by US$8.5 billion.
US tech tycoons have not been the only beneficiaries. India's Mr Mukesh Ambani became the first Asian to rank among the world's five richest last month.
He has gained US$22.5 billion this year on the back of a boost in shares of his conglomerate Reliance Industries, whose tech division has attracted recent investments from the likes of Facebook and Silver Lake.
And despite growing tensions with the US, China's tech billionaires have gained this year too.
Tencent Holdings chief executive Pony Ma has amassed US$16.6 billion this year and is now worth US$55.2 billion.
Alibaba Group Holding's Mr Jack Ma and Mr William Ding of NetEase have also added more than US$12 billion each, putting their fortunes at US$58.9 billion and US$30.8 billion, respectively.