The rise of Sweden's super-rich

Konrad Bergström

Konrad Bergström

Photo: BBC

Sweden has experienced the rise of the super-rich over the past three decades. By 2021, there will be 542 "crown billionaires," according to one analysis, and their wealth is equal to 70% of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). One reason for the rise of the new super-rich is Sweden's booming technology.

Sweden has a world reputation for high taxes and social equality, but has become the European epicenter for the super-rich.

On the cliff-top island of Lidingö, large red and yellow wooden villas and residences with floor-to-ceiling windows can be seen. 

Less than half an hour's drive from central Stockholm, this is one of Sweden's wealthiest neighborhoods.

Entrepreneur Konrad Bergström turns on the light of his wine cellar, revealing the 3,000 bottles of wine he has stored there. 

"French Bordeaux wine, I really like it," he says, smiling. 

Elsewhere in the house, there's an outdoor swimming pool, a reindeer-skinned gym and a workshop/nightclub.

"I have a lot of musician friends, so we release a lot of music," explains Bergström. 
He has made his money from setting up businesses, including a headphone and speaker company, and this house is one of many properties he owns in Sweden and Spain.

The lifestyle of such a successful entrepreneur is not surprising, but what may surprise global observers is how many people have become as rich as Bergström – or richer – in Sweden. Sweden is known as a country with a global reputation for left-wing politics.

Although the right-wing coalition is currently in power, the nation has been largely led by social democratic governments for the past century, elected on promises to grow the economy evenly, with taxes funding the strong welfare state.

But Sweden has experienced the rise of the super-rich over the past three decades.

In 1996, there were only 28 people with a net worth of one billion kroner (about $91 million in today's exchange value), according to a list by former Swedish business magazine Veckans Affärer. Most of them have come from families that have been wealthy for generations.

By 2021, there were 542 "krona billionaires", according to a similar analysis by Aftonbladet newspaper, and they owned wealth equal to 70% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Sweden – with a population of 10 million – also has one of the world's highest proportions of "dollar billionaires" per capita. Business magazine Forbes has listed 43 Swedes worth $1 billion or more on its 2024 Rich List.

That equates to about four billionaires per 1 million people, compared to about two per 1 million in the United States of America (which has 813 billionaires – the most of any nation – but has more than 342 million people). .

"It's come in such a sudden way that you didn't notice until it happened," says Andreas Cervenka, a journalist at Aftonbladet and author of the book Greedy Sweden, where he explores the slow rise of super-rich Swedes.

"But in Stockholm, you can see the rich with your own eyes and compare the super-rich people in some areas of Stockholm and the very poor people in other areas."

One reason for the rise of the new super-rich is Sweden's booming technology. The country has a reputation as Europe's Silicon Valley, producing more than 40 so-called "unicorn start-ups" - companies worth more than $1 billion - in the last two decades.

Skype and Spotify are based in Sweden, as are gaming firms King and Mojang. Recent global success stories include financial technology Tink, which Visa bought for around $2 billion during the pandemic, healthcare company Kry and electric scooter company Voi.

At Epicenter – shared office and community space with a giant glass atrium – veteran entrepreneur Ola Ahlvarsson shares how his success started in the 90s. He says the tax deduction for home computers in Sweden "has wired us or everyone much faster than other countries".

As a co-founder, he also points to the "strong culture of collaboration" throughout the company's threads, with skilled entrepreneurs often becoming role models for the next generation of tech companies.

Sweden's size makes it a popular test market, too. 

"If you want to see if something will work in the bigger markets, you can - with limited costs and with little risk to your company or the stock price - try things out here," says Ahlvarsson.

But Cervenka argues that there is another narrative that deserves more attention — monetary policies that he says have helped transform the country into a haven for the super-rich.
Sweden had very low interest rates from the 2010s until a few years ago. This has made it easy to borrow money, so Swedes with money have often decided to invest in property, or high-risk investments such as technology companies, many of which have appreciated in value as a result. 

"One of the big factors that has pushed the rise of billionaires is that we've had, for several years, pretty strong inflation in the value of assets," says Cervenka.

Although top earners in Sweden are taxed more than 50% of their personal earnings – one of the highest in Europe – he argues that successive governments, from the right and the left, have adjusted some taxes that way that the rich are favored.

Lidingö Island, home of Sweden's super-rich

The country abolished wealth and inheritance taxes in the 2000s, and tax rates on money made from shares and payments to company shareholders are much lower than payroll taxes. The corporate tax rate has also fallen from around 30% in the 1990s to around 20% - slightly lower than the European average.

"Today you don't need to leave Sweden if you are a billionaire. And in fact, some billionaires are coming here to live," says Cervenka.

On the island of Lidingö, Konrad Bergströmi admits that Sweden has "a very favorable tax system if you are building a company". Still, he says his wealth has a positive impact because his businesses — and homes — provide jobs for others. 

"We have a nanny, gardener and cleaner ... and that provides more work. Therefore, we must not forget how we are building society".

Bergström notes that wealthy Swedish entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are also reinvesting their money in so-called "impact" companies, which focus on improving society and the environment.

In 2023, 74% of all venture capital funding for Swedish companies went to impact companies. This is the largest percentage in the European Union and much higher than the European average of 35%, according to figures from Dealroom, which collects data on companies.

Perhaps the highest-profile investor in the country is Niklas Adalberthi, who co-founded the payment platform Klarna. In 2012, he used $130 million of his fortune to launch the Norrsken Foundation, an organization that supports and invests in impact companies.

"I don't have the habits of billionaires like a yacht or a private jet or anything like that," says Adalberthi. "This is my recipe for a happy life."

But others have argued that Sweden lacks public debate about the wealth of billionaires, beyond how entrepreneurs are spending their fortunes.

Recent research from Örebro University has concluded that the media image of Swedish billionaires is largely positive and has suggested that their wealth is rarely explained in the context of the country's changing economic policies. 

"As long as the super-rich embody the ideals of the neoliberal era, such as hard work, risk-taking and an entrepreneurial attitude, the inequality behind it is not in question," says media scholar Axel Vikström.

Cervenka adds that debates about taxing the super-rich are not as pronounced in Sweden as they are in many Western countries, such as the US.

"It's kind of a paradox. One would think that with our background - being perceived as a socialist country - this would be on everyone's mind," says the author. "I think it has to do with the fact that we have been created with a 'winner takes it all' mentality." That if you play your cards right, you can become a billionaire... And this is a drastic change, I think, in the Swedish mentality".

The Swedish rich list has shown that the nation's wealth is concentrated in white men, despite the country's large number of immigrants and policies that protect gender equality.
"Yes, it's a place where people can make money, create new wealth, but it's still quite closed and the double standards are quite high in terms of whose ideas get funded," says Nigerian novelist and entrepreneur Lola Akinmade. Swedish. "Sweden is an exceptional country in many ways, but there are still many people who are excluded from the system."