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I hear a lot lately about how there are X millionaires and Y billionaires in one state or another. How do we know this? Does the government or some private company track it somehow?

To date, I've never been required to disclose my net worth to anyone. Is there some point where banks or brokerages are required to (or volunteer to) disclose account balances to the government?

The only tax laws I have lived under require only that income and realized capital gains be reported. There simply isn't enough there to ascertain net worth.

I'd rather keep my private affairs private, so I'm just wondering are my account balances or net worth somehow being disclosed without my knowledge? Might it be disclosed in the future without my consent if I reach some particular level?

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    Banks may report aggregated data by state. They're not currently required to disclose individual data for any balance amount, but this could change by law in the future. There are some proposals to have banks disclose inflows and outflows to the IRS
    – Daniel
    Nov 7, 2021 at 16:50
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    We already know all about you. Nov 7, 2021 at 17:07
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    Most really don't conceal (much of) their wealth, and many simply can't. If you're Elon Musk, and the bulk of your wealth is shares in Tesla & SpaceX, your holdings are a matter of record, so just multiply shares held by share price.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 7, 2021 at 17:24
  • When do shares held of public companies become public record? Only for high executives? Or can any share held by anyone be looked up? Nov 7, 2021 at 18:26
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2 Answers 2

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Certain firms track rich people and are happy to sell that information to newspaper reporters. One news organization, Forbes, maintains a staff that does nothing but try to figure out how much money the rich have.

The estimates of these organizations on wealth are necessarily imperfect and the quality of the underlying data ranges from highly reliable to complete guesswork.

The most reliable informtion is in the case of people who hold large fractions of public companies which must be disclosed (in the United States) and are a public record.

Also, many rich people act through known holding companies. These holding companies usually have records with credit reporting agencies that include the total value of the holding company. A person can only avoid this kind of record getting created if they never borrow any money. Since most of the very rich in the United States and Europe borrow money for tax minimization reasons, they end up generating credit reports that detail their net worth. These credit reports are available from credit reporting agencies for a fee.

It is much harder to track real estate holdings because usually these are held in trusts. So, in that case the investigator has to figure out what trusts the individual controls. This is complicated by the fact that many trusts have multiple beneficiaries, often in the same family and it can be difficult to find out how much of the trust is owned by each beneficiary. So, you might know, for example, that the Forbes family has say $1 billion in real estate, but not know how it is divided up among them. Also, assessing the value of real estate can be problematic, especially if it is land in conservation or in remote areas.

People who are citizens of countries with banking secrecy such as in the Middle East or some countries in Asia are more or less impossible to accurately investigate. Also, in South America and Africa, while in theory many assets are quasi public, because the bureaucrats in those countries are less invasive than in first world countries, it is very easy to hide assets and money. For example, a person can create a company in South or Central America and fund it, then have that company own bank accounts. Their ownership of the company can be masked in various ways. So, unless you know somehow the ownership structure of the company, you have no way of knowing how much wealth the person might have tied up in that company.

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Number of millionaires in a country can be extrapolated from surveys, e.g. this US survey funded by the Federal Reserve.

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  • Knowing the number of millionaires does not tell us who those millionaires are. And FWIW, being just a plain old millionaire these days isn't even rich, let alone uber rich. It's just reasonably prosperous.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 9, 2021 at 3:33
  • First 2 sentences of the question: "I hear a lot lately about how there are X millionaires and Y billionaires in one state or another. How do we know this?" Nov 9, 2021 at 16:52

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