NEW YORK: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is still the richest man in the world, but his lead over other entrepreneurs is narrowing, according to Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires published Thursday.
Despite Gates leading the rich list for a 13th straight year with a tidy nest egg of 56 billion dollars, US investment guru Warren Buffett’s personal fortune climbed to 52 billion, halving the software mogul’s lead.
There were now a record 946 billionaires in the world, up more than 150 from last year, with Forbes attributing the increase to a commodities boom, the march of technology and relative weakness of the US dollar.
The list’s total net worth grew 35 percent from last year to a staggering 3.5 trillion dollars, with Mexican telecoms mogul Carlos Slim Helu jumping into third place with a massive 19 billion dollar increase in his net worth.
“This growth in the billionaires list is a mere reflection of a dynamic global economy. More people are better off on this Earth than ever before,” said Steve Forbes, the magazine’s editor in chief, unveiling the list.
“This boom goes beyond commodities. One of the things that has facilitated this global boom, bringing hundreds of millions of people into the global economy is of course technology,” he added.
“This is the richest year in human history.”
While the 20th annual list was dominated as usual by US businessmen, Russian oligarchs and Asian entrepreneurs, especially those from India and China, were increasingly making their presence felt.
Some 36 Indian billionaires led by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal now featured on the list boasting a total wealth of 191 billion dollars between them, knocking out Japan after two decades as the leading Asian power on the list.
But even India’s dominance would be overturned if China and Hong Kong were lumped together with their total of 41 billionaires, led respectively by Hong Kong property magnate Li Ka-shing and China’s paper manufacturer Yan Cheung.
“It was a sizzling year in Asia. Both India and China saw huge gains,” said Forbes Associate Editor Luisa Kroll, who oversaw the report. “It seems we just can’t get away from billionaires.”
In Europe, the most excitement came from Russia and Spain, Kroll explained, with 10 new Spanish names on the list and 19 Russian newcomers.
“The Russians are, on average, 46 years old. That’s 16 years younger than the average 62-year-old billionaires,” she said.
Forbes, however, urged some caution, saying some of the fortunes in the former Soviet Union did not appear sustainable in the long term.
“If there is a fall-off of commodity prices... does it have the breadth and depth to take up the slack?” he asked of the Russian economy.
Oil kingpin and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich remained the top dog in Russia with 18.7 billion dollars, with his 52 billionaire countrymen owing their fortunes mainly to oil, steel, mining and metals.
In the Middle East, Turkey emerged with the most billionaires, beating Saudi Arabia into second place and Israel into third.
Howard Schultz of Starbucks was a new entrant to the list. Former Disney chief Michael Eisner also made his debut, thanks mostly to his rising stock in the company.
Other familiar faces were Google executives Larry Page and Sergey Brin, now worth 16.6 billion dollars each, Dell founder Michael Dell worth 15.8 billion and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi with 11.8 billion.
Google’s rise was emblematic of the rapid growth in fortunes of more than just a handful of entrepreneurs in recent years.
“In the last five years... despite all the turmoil in the world, all the conflict in the world, the global economy in real terms expanded over 25 percent. Never in history has there been such an advance,” said Steve Forbes.