When it comes to producing billionaires, America is doing great.
Until 2005, multimillionaires could still make the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. In 2006, the list went billionaires only.
The number 13 has long been considered unlucky by superstitious people around the globe. How fitting, then, that Bill Gates’ reign as the world’s richest person ends after his 13th year at the top.
Despite being worth $58 billion, $2 billion more than last year, Gates is now just the world’s third-richest person, ceding the top spot ranking to his good friend and partner in philanthropy, Warren Buffett, whose net worth jumped $10 billion to $62 billion. (All stock prices and net worth valuations were locked in on Feb. 11.) Ranked No. 2 is Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim HelÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âº, whose fortune has doubled in just two years to $60 billion.
It is certainly a dawning of a new era. But not just because of Gates’ fall. The 22nd annual rankings of the World’s Billionaires reflects all sorts of upheavals in the list’s makeup. Two years ago, half of the world’s 20 richest were from the U.S. Now only four are. India wins bragging rights for having four among the top 10, more than any other country.
For the first time ever, the number of billionaires Forbes could identify crossed into four figures, reaching 1,125. The total net worth of the group is $4.4 trillion, up $900 billion from last year. Despite the turbulence in the U.S. markets, Americans account for 42% of the world’s billionaires and 37%, of the total wealth; those shares are down two and three percentage points, respectively, from last year.
Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, with 87 billionaires, is the new No. 2 country behind the U.S., easily overtaking Germany, with 59 billionaires, which held the honor for six years.
The rankings include 226 newcomers. Seventy-seven of the new faces come from the U.S., half of whom made their fortunes in finance and investments, including John Paulson and Philip Falcone, both of whom became wealthy shorting subprime debt. Another third of the new billionaires comes from Russia (35), China (28) and India (19). Two of the most noteworthy new entrants are South Africa’s Patrice Motsepe and Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote, the first black Africans to make their debut among the world’s richest. Dangote is also the first-ever Nigerian billionaire.
It is also a record-breaking year for young billionaires, with Forbes finding 50 under the age of 40, 25 of whom are new to the list. Sixty-eight percent of these under-age-40 tycoons built their 10-figure fortunes from scratch, including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page; former Enron trader John Arnold, who now runs a hedge fund; India’s Sameer Gehlaut, who started online brokerage Indiabulls; and, last but not least, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who at age 23 might just be the youngest self-made billionaire in history.
Zuckerberg is probably destined to be the most talked about newcomer of the year because of his age and ingenious social-networking site, but there are fascinating entrepreneurs of all ages climbing into the ranks. Some of the more notable ones include China’s Gao Dekang, who is one of the world’s biggest makers of down jackets and vests; Portugal’s Americo Amorim, who turned his grandfather’s small cork operation into the world’s largest; and Brazil’s Eike Batista, who built and lost a gold mining fortune, before hitting it big in iron ore. He is now one of the world’s richest mining billionaires.
With all the rosy news of the past year and the overall gains, it is easy to lose sight of the volatility that has been wreaking havoc on these fortunes on a daily basis for months. For instance, Hong Kong’s richest person, Li Ka-shing, lost $5.5 billion of his net worth, all tied to publicly held stocks, in the 37 days between Jan. 4 and Feb. 11.
Meanwhile, mainland China’s richest person, 26-year-old Yang Huiyan, fell from $17.3 billion in September to $7.4 billion in the rankings. Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s fortune touched $25.5 billion in the past year but is now down to $18.7 billion. Others were hit much harder, falling off the list entirely, including Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld and Bear Stearns ex-chief James Cayne (he was sacked), both victims of the world’s credit crunch, and Pulte Homes’ William Pulte, whose stock collapsed along with the housing market.
A billion dollars is a lot of dough. Queen Elizabeth II, British monarch for five decades, would have to add $400 million to her $600 million fortune to reach $1 billion. And she’d need another $300 million to reach the Forbes 400 minimum of $1.3 billion. The average Forbes 400 member has $3.8 billion.
When the Forbes 400 began in 1982, it was dominated by oil and manufacturing fortunes. Today, says Forbes, “Wall Street is king.”
Nearly half the 45 new members, says Forbes, “made their fortunes in hedge funds and private equity. Money manager John Paulson joins the list after pocketing more than $1 billion short-selling subprime credit this summer.”
The 25th anniversary of the Forbes 400 isn’t party time for America.
We have a record number of billionaires — and record foreclosures – and a record 47 million people without any health insurance – 5 million more people living below the poverty line.
The official poverty threshold for one person was a ridiculously low $10,294 in 2006. That won’t get you two pounds of caviar ($9,800) and 25 cigars ($730) on the Forbes Cost of Living Extremely Well Index. The $20,614 family-of-four poverty threshold is lower than the cost of three months of home flower arrangements ($24,525).
Between 1983 and 2004, the average wealth of the top 1 percent of households grew by 78 percent, reports Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University. The bottom 40 percent lost 59 percent.
In 2004, one out of six households had zero or negative net worth. Nearly one out of three households had less than $10,000 in net worth, including home equity. That’s before the mortgage crisis hit.
In 1982, when the Forbes 400 had just 13 billionaires, the highest paid CEO made $108 million and the average full-time worker made $34,199, adjusted for inflation in $2006. Last year, the highest paid hedge fund manager hauled in $1.7 billion, the highest paid CEO made $647 million, and the average worker made $34,861, with vanishing health and pension coverage.
The Forbes 400 is even more of a rich men’s club than when it began. The number of women has dropped from 75 in 1982 to 39 today.
The 400 richest Americans have a conservatively estimated $1.54 trillion in combined wealth. That amount is more than 11 percent of our $13.8 trillion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the total annual value of goods and services produced by our nation of 303 million people. In 1982, Forbes 400 wealth measured less than 3 percent of U.S. GDP.
And the rich, notes Fortune magazine, “give away a smaller share of their income than the rest of us.”
Thanks to mega-tax cuts, the rich can afford more mega-yachts, accessorized with helicopters and mini-submarines. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of bridges, levees, mass transit, parks and other public assets inherited from earlier generations of taxpayers crumbles from neglect, and the holes in the safety net are growing.
The top 1 percent of households — average income $1.5 million — will save a collective $79.5 billion on their 2008 taxes, reports Citizens for Tax Justice. That’s more than the combined budgets of the Transportation Department, Small Business Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Tax cuts will save the top 1 percent a projected $715 billion between 2001 and 2010. And cost us $715 billion in mounting national debt plus interest.
No worries, though – the children and grandchildren of underpaid workers will pay for the partying of today’s plutocrats and their stables of lobbyists.