The Billionaires: Anorak enthroned as sultan of the super-rich

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The Independent Online
A pig farmer, a car-parking mogul and one - just one - black, who happens also to be a woman. These are some of those who appear on the latest Forbes list of America's richest.

As David Usborne notes, the number-one spot goes to a one-time geek whose weekly earnings last year reached $400m. Guess who?

Memo to Bill Gates, chairman and founder of Microsoft: Stand by your phone -Ted Turner will be on the line for you shortly. Ditto for the 399 other high-rollers who find their names on the annual Forbes list of "Richest Americans", due out in its 13 October issue.

The list will be a handy reference tool for Mr Turner. Only a week ago the media mogul said he was giving $1bn (pounds 588m) to UN causes and put others as rich or richer on notice that he would be badgering them to follow his example and dispense a portion of their wealth. No one will have a harder time resisting the challenge than Mr Gates. His worth more than doubled from $18.5bn last year to $39.8bn now. Do the sums and you discover this: Mr Gates's fortune grew by an average $400m a week over the past 12 months.

The new rankings also crown Mr Gates as the richest person in the world, knocking aside even the Sultan of Brunei, said to be worth $38bn. Furlongs behind Mr Gates at number two is the investment guru Warren Buffett. But with $21bn he manages to pip King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who can claim $20bn. Way down the list is Steven Spielberg, the film-maker.

All in all, the Founding Fathers would be proud. (They would also bless Wall Street, which continues to send stocks, and therefore the paper worth of types such as Mr Gates, soaring.) Of the 400 who make up the Forbes list, 170 are billionaires. Anyone worth under $475m does not even make it.

But is billionairedom becoming commonplace? Last year there were 135 of them in America. When Forbes launched the list in 1982 they numbered only 13. Indeed, the average net worth of the Forbes 400 is now set at $1.6bn.

Among other messages you could read in the rankings: don't worry about college (the average net worth of college drop-outs is $3.3bn, while the average for Ivy League graduates is $1.8bn. Four of those featured never finished school). But you are still more likely to make it as a white male.

In that regard, special distinction must surely go to television talk- show celebrity Oprah Winfrey. She is the only black American to have made it, while being among a total of only 60 women.

The prize for persistence and sheer chutzpah goes - another surprise - to Donald Trump. Whereas in 1990,the King of Glitz had a negative personal value, this year he reappears on the list with a net value of $1.4bn. Never known for his humility, he told researchers at Forbes they had got their maths wrong and that his true worth is $3.7bn. And while the preponderance of Silicon Valley fortunes is impressive - the top five after Mr Gates and Mr Buffett are rounded out by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, Larry Ellison of Oracle and Gordon Moore of Intel - the Forbes list shows us there are still other ways to be rich in America.

Among the 31 new entrants to the list this year, there is a certain Wendell Murphy, who can claim $1bn made from raising hogs in the American Midwest and Monroe Carell Jr ($600m) who earned his pile with parking lots.

Surer still, of course, are fortunes from inheritances. Almost one third of those on the list got their dollars from their forebears.

Mr Gates may need to watch another technology wunderkind coming up fast from behind.

He is Michael Dell (college drop-out), who climbed from 106th place last year to 16th in the new list.

At 32, he is worth $5.5bn, more than Mr Gates could claim at the same age. How has he done it? The value of the stock in his Dell Computer company exploded 1,000 per cent in 12 months.

Mr Turner's ranking, meanwhile, is not so scruffy. For now, he is tied at 27th place with the financier George Soros ($3.5bn each). Forbes decided not to take account of his UN gift until it is actually distributed. Were he indeed $1bn poorer, he would sink to number 55.

That, however, is what Mr Turner says he wants to see happen. In announcing his donation, he decried the Forbes list, complaining that the rich of America had become slaves to it, each more determined than the other to edge up the rankings.

But if Mr Gates really wants to give up his throne atop the list, he will have to give away an awful lot of dollars. More, even, than $400m a week.

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