So there are, according to Forbes magazine, 1,426 dollar billionaires in the world, with a total wealth of $5.4 trillion. Actually, these figures will be an understatement, for financial markets have risen since the cut-off date of 14 February. There will also doubtless be some billionaires who have managed to remain under the radar and are not listed, while one, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, has cut links with the list, saying that it understates the wealth of Middle Eastern investors.
People will have different reactions to this news. Many will obviously ponder how we have managed to create a world where so much wealth is concentrated in so few hands, and where even in difficult times the gaps seems to continue growing. From a parochial perspective, it is fascinating to see how few Britons there are on the list compared with just about every other country, developed or emerging. There is only one – Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster – in the top 100 and he just scrambles in at number 89. My feeling reading through the list is that the people who are “only” worth $1bn must feel vaguely inadequate. There they are, rich far beyond most people’s wildest dreams, yet there are more than 1,000 people in the world who have done even better.
Of course, the top few places catch the headlines, with Carlos Slim, the Mexican telecom owner, still ahead of Bill Gates. Number three is a Spaniard, Amancio Ortega, who you may not have heard of, though you will have heard of his company, Zara. Four Americans follow, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, and Charles and David Koch. Then comes Li Ka-shing, of Hong Kong, and two French families in the luxury trade. There is the 90-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, whose family controls L’Oreal, and Bernard Arnault, whose family controls LVMH. Interesting, is it not, that it is troubled Spain and socialist France that hit the top spots in Europe, not Germany or Britain? It is interesting, too, if slightly alarming that the total wealth of the top 10 is around £400bn, which would pay off less than half the UK national debt.
But it is worth getting past the top slots because the list taken as a whole tells us a lot about the changing shape of the world economy – ways in which new wealth is being generated and the places where that is happening. So the US still leads the total number of billionaires, with 440 of them, but the Asia-Pacific region has now passed Europe, with 386 billionaires against 366, followed by the rest of the Americas (129), and Africa and the Middle East with 103. Most of the fortunes are self-made rather than inherited, obviously, in China, Russia and Africa, but also in much of the old world, too. Most have been made by men, though the number of women on the list has risen by one-third to 138.
As noted earlier, Britons don’t feature much. David and Simon Reuben get in at 103. Sir Philip Green, of Topshop makes it at number 248, while Sir Richard Branson is number 272. Sir James Dyson is 286. Laurence Graff, the jeweller, is at 299, the Bamford family, which makes construction equipment, at 308 and Bernie Ecclestone, of Formula One fame, is number 353. But I can’t help getting the feeling that Britain is not the place to become really, really rich. It is a place where it is easy to spend money, not one where it is easy to earn it.
And that, I suppose, does bring us round to our attitudes to wealth more generally. Some entrepreneurs, such as James Dyson and Richard Branson, are indeed celebrated and most of us would say rightly so. But people who earn a lot running a big company get billed as fat cats, even though their wealth would be a tiny fraction of that of a middling entrepreneur. So it is all right to be a billionaire if you own the show, not so all right to be a millionaire if you merely work for it. As for bankers’ bonuses – please, let’s not go there.
Two cheers for the boom in equities
There will be a few more billionaires today, as the Dow Jones index burst through to its highest level ever. European shares shot up, too, to their highest level for four-and-a-half years. Here, in the UK, the FTSE 100 index is still just short of its most recent high of 3,479 on 3 January 2008, but way short of its all-time high of 6,930 on 31 December 1999, so we are not doing quite so well. Indeed, factoring in the fall of sterling, we are even further behind.
But markets are global and this global optimism is, well, interesting. It is worth saying again that while the reasons for the share boom are mostly positive – the mounting evidence that the recovery is more secure – there is also the less reassuring thought that if things falter, central banks will print more money to keep the show going. That has to go somewhere and equities are the first port of call. Either way, shares head up.
But it is also worth noting something else: 3 January 2008 and 31 December 1999 were just ahead of nasty declines in global output, the second much nastier than the first. The mood today does not feel like it did either time then. Politicians are not preening and the rest of us are pretty cautious. So maybe the present mood is healthier – as long as we stay frightened, we might just be all right.