In recent years, even at a time of global recession, the world’s wealthiest people have been getting wealthier and wealthier. In fact, the wealthiest 5 percent of American households received 81.7 percent of the total wealth gain in America between 1983 and 2009, according to a study from the Economic Policy Institute.

The wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes, is Mexican businessman Carlos Slim with a total fortune of $74 billion. Number two and number three on the list of world’s wealthiest people are Americans Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, with $56 billion and $50 billion respectively.

With billionaires continuing to see their wealth appreciate at a rapid pace, the question has been asked: “When will we see the world’s first trillionaire?”

A trillion dollars is a big number – here it is with all the zeroes included:


For comparison’s sake, the entire size of the U.S. economy was approximately $14.7 trillion as of 2010 and the entire U.S. federal budget is approximately $3.7 trillion.

There are several factors that affect how rapidly someone’s wealth can grow: tax laws, the overall growth of the economy and inflation.

Using Bill Gates as an example, starting from today with a net worth of $56 billion, if Bill Gates’ wealth were to continue to grow by 3 percent per year, he would achieve trillionaire status in 98 years. Of course, Bill Gates is already 56 years old, so he’s probably not going to be around at the age of 154. (No offense to Mr. Gates, and I don’t mean to sound morbid; it’s just a fact. Although if anyone could figure out how to live to 154, it would probably be Bill Gates.)

So let’s consider a younger billionaire. How about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is currently 27 years old?

If Mark Zuckerberg were to cash in on his Facebook stock (currently valued at approximately $8 billion) and invest it aggressively, and achieved an amazing 20 percent return on investment, he would become a trillionaire within 50 years. Not a bad 77 th birthday present!

Even though today’s group of billionaires are gaining wealth at a rapid pace, they’re still nowhere near that trillion dollar mark. There have been other wealthy figures in past eras who were closer to becoming trillionaires than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are today – for example, John D. Rockefeller was the wealthiest American in history (and often estimated to be the wealthiest person who has ever lived). Rockefeller died in 1937 at the age of 97, with a net worth of $663 billion (in present-day dollars, adjusted for inflation – although the actual nominal value of his fortune was “only” $1.4 billion in 1937).

If John D. Rockefeller had lived for another 14 years, with an annual net worth gain of 3 percent, he would have reached “trillionaire” status (in 2011 dollars).

Despite America’s fascination with wealth and our pride as a home to innovators and inventors and entrepreneurs, the world’s first trillionaire is probably not going to be an American. For starters, the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, is Mexican. The world’s wealthiest family is the Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi (worth $150 billion). Some of the fastest growing economies (and fastest growing fortunes) in the world are in the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The world’s first trillionaire is more likely to be a commodities trader from Nigeria or an oil tycoon from Russia than an American tech entrepreneur.

It’s interesting to reflect on the very remoteness of the concept of a “trillionaire” – the numbers become so big as to be mind-boggling. And it’s comforting, in a way, to know that no matter how much money someone earns, they will still be far away from that elusive trillion-dollar goal. It looks like we’ll be describing our wealthiest people as “billionaires” for some time to come.