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Bill Gates Wealth Index
Most people will have read the recent reports of how Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has had his personal net worth soar over 100 billion dollars and then drop down to 55 billion. He certainly knows how to make (and lose) money.
(Note: This article was written in 1998, Bill's Fortunes have dropped a touch since then.)
Consider that he made this money in the 25 years or so since Microsoft was founded in 1975. If you presume that he has worked 14 hours a day on every business day of the year since then, that means he's been making money at a staggering million dollars per hour, around $300 per second.
Which means that if, on his way into the office, should he see or drop a $1000 bill on the ground, it's just not worth his time to bend over and pick it up. He would make more just heading off to work.
We're assuming about 4 seconds to bend down and pocket the bill. Of course he can afford to hire people to follow him and pick up any $1000 bills he may drop. Not that he would, fortunately he doesn't quite think of his wealth or time this way. The rumours that when the $50,000,000 invoice for his new manor on Lake Washington came in, he simply said, "Melinda, could you get my wallet. I think it's in my other pants" are not true. It is ironic that a lot of that house is going to be underground; rooms built with Windows won't have any.
When I first calculated this, it was only a $20 bill, and then for some time it was a $100 bill. When I first wrote this as an article (it appeared in Upside and Harper's and was noted annoyingly without credit in the Wall Street Journal and Reader's Digest, it was a $500 bill. I remember speaking to him at a conference some years ago thinking, "$31 per second, $31 per second" as we talked. I didn't mention this. When I later came to explain the article was really about numbers and not him it was over $100 per second as he ranted to me about how mean Upside is to him.
It's perhaps more disturbing to look at the slope of his appreciation during some periods. In 1998 he netted some $45 Billion, meaning that at the rate he's went, if he saw a $10,000 bill, he would have been just as well to pass it by. (They do exist, but he won't see one until he buys the U.S. treasury -- they are not circulated. Salmon Chase, former secretary of the treasury and chief justice, is on it.) If it's a pile of cash he has to count, it's even worse. At $3,700 per second in 98, they would have to be mythical five-thousand-dollar Bills -- and he would need to have a quick hand -- to avoid him losing the money in wasted time while he's counting them. Counting $1,000 bills would be very unprofitable.
That $45B in 12 months is an astounding rate at which to make money. That's higher than the entire gross domestic products of Chile and Egypt, and he's done twice as well as Guatemala, 4 times better than all of Sri Lanka or the Dominican Republic, 6 times better than Costa Rica, El Salvador or Panama, 8 times better than everybody in Brunei, including the Sultan, and 23 times better than all of Bermuda. That's right, in 1998 Bill's made much more (before taxes) than the entire population of Kuwait, all the Emirs, oil wells, Sheiks, millionaires and peasants -- everybody.
And forget about companies. Nobody -- even G.M, Exxon, Ford, IBM and Intel combined -- has earned what Bill's did in 98 by holding onto that MSFT stock. His profit/month is more than all the sales of Lockheed Martin, J.C. Penny, UPS or Intel, and all but 25 of the largest companies on last year's Fortune 500. In fact, in 1998, his stock has gone up around three times Microsoft's entire sales -- not just profits -- for 1996.
The "Too-small-a-bill-for-Bill" index has gone up quite a bit over the years. When Microsoft went public in 1986, the new multimillionaire only had to leave behind $5 bills.
Here's a chart (click on it) of the amount of currency it's not been worth Mr. Gates' time to pick up off the ground over the years, based on his current 800 million or so shares of Microsoft (he has given away quite a few) and the split-adjusted stock price courtesy of Microsoft's own web site.
The chart was of course generated with Microsoft Excel, and for those who want to play with it or print it at a better resolution, here's the .xls spreadsheet file to download.
Bill Gates Dollars
Another way to examine this sort of wealth is to compare it to yours. Consider an average American of modest wealth. Perhaps she has a net worth of $70,000. Mr. Gates' worth is 800,000 times larger. Which means that if something costs $100,000 to her, to Bill it's as though it costs 12 cents. You can work out the right multiplier for your own net worth.
So for example, you might think a new Lambourghini Diablo would cost $250,000, but in Bill Gates dollars that's 31 cents.
That fully loaded, multimedia active matrix 233 MHZ laptop with the 1024x768 screen you've been drooling after? Half a penny.
A nice home in a rich town like Palo Alto, California? Two dollars. That nice mansion he's building? A more reasonable $63 to him.
You might spend $50 on tickets, food and parking to take your date to see an NHL hockey game. Bill, on the other hand could buy the team for 50 Bill-bills.
You might buy a plane ticket on a Boeing 747 for $1200 at full-fare coach. In Bill-bills, Mr. Gates could buy six 747s (Not tickets, the planes themselves). Two for him, two for Melinda and two for young Jennifer Katherine.
Evan Marcus, a Systems Engineer from Fair Lawn, New Jersey who maintains a Bill Gates Net Worth Page on his web site, notes that Bill could buy every single major league team in Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey for only about 35% of his net worth -- plenty left over to buy a European sport.
Of course then he wouldn't have around $150 for every person in the USA as he does now. Nor could he still give $6.70 to every person on the planet.
Marcus suggests that Bill could pay Michael Jordan's 1997 salary only 1300 times, but that he could buy 902 million subscriptions to TV guide. He's also fascinated by how much much all this money would be if put into dollar bills. Laid end to end, the Bills would stretch 3.8 million miles -- to the moon and back over 8 times. They could paper over all of Manhatten 7 times, or be stacked 2,690 miles high -- watch out for satellites. They would weigh 40,000 tons -- 100 times the weight of one of those 747s he bought above.
But one thing Marcus says Bill can't do is even dent the national debt. Should he selflessly donate his stock to the U.S. treasury, he would reduce the $5.37 trillion national debt by well under 1%. It's nice to put things in perspective.
Hey, Bill, if you just spent 3 minutes reading this article, do you realize you could have made $50,000 in that time? Back to work. And like I said, no hard feelings.
Some other web pages have had something to say about this staggering amount of money. You can try:
By Brad Templeton, who still stops to pick up nickels (but has given up on pennies.) The funny thing is, Bill Gates probably still does, too.
Copyright 1997-9 Brad Templeton. Second photo courtesy Philip Greenspun. Please don't copy this article, but feel free to link to it on the web.