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What financial crisis? Number of billionaires hits new high

Forbes list of world's richest people reflects growing power of Asia

Stephen Foley
Thursday 11 March 2010 01:00 GMT

While for many people the effects of the worst recession since the Thirties look likely to linger and unemployment remains high across the Western world, for the planet's super-rich, things are looking very perky once again.

The number of billionaires has soared in the past year, and dozens of people who lost that elite status in the credit crisis have won it back as stock markets and commodities prices have rebounded. But the man behind the list warns that the West is losing ground to Asia, from where the bulk of the newly-minted billionaires have emerged.

"The US still dominates," said Steve Forbes, the magazine mogul and onetime US presidential candidate, "but it is lagging. The remarkable changes in the list are reflecting the changes taking place in the global economy."

The new order is reflected in tales of people such as Wu Yajun, the 45-year-old former engineer who has become China's richest woman thanks to the economic boom in the city of Chongqing, where she runs a property company, and of Li Shufu, the son of a farmer who runs China's Geely car maker which recently announced plans to buy Volvo from Ford. Both are among 97 new billionaires, including 62 from Asia. By contrast, the US created only 16.

Other newcomers include Yoshikazu Tanaka, the 33-year-old developer of Japan's most popular social networking site, Gree. He is second only to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in the list of youngest billionaires. Mr Zuckerberg, 25, is worth $4bn (£2.67bn) to Mr Tanaka's $1.4bn.

The March edition of Forbes magazine, out today, has become essential reading for the world's super-rich. While many studiously try to protect their privacy and stay below the radar, others have hired public relations advisers to make sure they get on the list.

Since the middle of this decade the top of the list has been dominated by the friendly rivalry between bridge partners Bill Gates and Warren Buffett but this time out, based on calculations fixed early last month, Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecoms mogul, came out a whisker ahead of both with $53.5bn.

One of the reasons for the switch is Mr Slim's view of philanthropy. Were it not for his charitable giving, including the setting up of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Microsoft founder would be worth more than $80bn today; Mr Buffett, who is giving away his fortune in tranches to the Gates Foundation, would be worth $55bn. Mr Slim, meanwhile, was quoted in 2007 saying "poverty isn't solved with donations".

The three men have swapped the title of the world's richest man between them for several years, as the stock market fortunes of their companies has fluctuated, but a brash newcomer is now threatening to break up the troika. At No 8 on the list, Eike Batista of Brazil has more than tripled his wealth in the past year, as investment pours into his country and excitement grows over big oil and gas finds there, finds in which he has a significant economic stake. Having already achieved his vaunted ambition of becoming Brazil's richest man, the 53-year-old college dropout vows in an interview with the magazine that he now plans to become the richest in the world.

It is an ambition that Mr Forbes says is realistic. "Brazil is now in a position to lend money to the International Monetary Fund, not the other way round," he said. The US still dominates the list of billionaires, which is 1,011 long this year. That is up from 793 of 2009, largely thanks to the rebound in commodities prices which has brought many Russians back into the elite club, but it is shy of the pre-credit crisis record of 1,125. Moscow has once again overtaken London as the home of more billionaires – with 50 compared to 32 – but New York leads both with 60.

Get a load of this: The world's richest people

1 Carlos Slim Helu (last year: 3) $53.5bn (last year: $35.0bn)

The cigar-puffing 70-year-old took control of Mexico's telecoms monopoly and now owns the largest mobile operator in Latin America.

2. Bill Gates (1) $53.0bn ($40.0bn)

Gates's wealth is still largely tied up in Microsoft, though he spends his time now on philanthropy.

3 Warren Buffett (2) $47.0bn ($37.0bn)

Close to his 80th birthday, the investment guru has begun giving his fortune away to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

4 Mukesh Ambani (7) $29.0bn ($19.5bn)

Won the lion's share of his father's Indian conglomerate, Reliance Industries, in a carve-up with his brother, Anil.

5 Lakshmi Mittal (8) $28.7bn ($19.3bn)

The Indian-born, London-based steel tycoon lost more than half his fortune in 2008, but since then commodities prices have bounced back.

6 Larry Ellison (4) $28.0bn ($22.5bn)

He founded and still runs the database software firm Oracle, but he is happiest these days sailing and won the America's Cup in February.

7 Bernard Arnault (15) $27.5bn ($16.5bn)

Europe's richest man built LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Moët et Chandon and Hennessey.

8 Eike Batista (61) $27.0bn ($7.5bn)

Born to a German mother and Brazilian father, he floated his oil and gas firm just when the oil price peaked.

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