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Billionaires Club with a difference

T N Ninan | September 27, 2003

The more money you have, someone once said, the less interesting you become. I can see the point, but tales of money-making remain fascinating. It's just that people in India didn't think so until the Ambanis, Premjis and Narayana Murthys became street legend.

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Studying the wealthy is not even a sport in India; in the US, it is the stuff of serious academic research (which says that the rich there are usually monogamous, run boring businesses and are not high spenders -- so we see straightaway how they can be quite uninteresting!).

The fact is that the individual stories and the underlying statistics reflect significant trends in society -- which is why Business Standard brings out every year its annual listing of the members of India's Billionaire Club (those worth more than a billion rupees, or 100 crore).

There are now 125 in the list, up from 88 two years ago -- reflecting the upsurge in share prices this year. And it is encouraging that the majority on the list remain first generation creators of wealth, not inheritors -- indeed, 7 in the top 10 are first generation businessmen, and two are second generation.

So this is not a game of inherited privilege, with its hint of semi-legitimacy; it is a celebration of success and achievement. But we've seen over the years that businessmen who get felicitated for being the entrepreneur of the year, turn up for the award whereas Azim Premji (the wealthiest in all rankings till the latest one) has studiously stayed away, preferring to wait for recognition of a different kind.

Which begs the question: are these super-rich guys smarter than the rest of us? So it would seem, but not all that much smarter, since the top 100 billionaires have increased their listed wealth by 40 per cent since 1999, when Business Standard first came out with the Billionaire Club.

Against that, the total market cap of all shares on the Bombay Stock Exchange increased by 34 per cent in the same period. But the Ambanis, who sit at the top of the pile for the first time, have increased their wealth by a staggering 467 per cent in these four years, from Rs 5,046 crore (Rs 50.46 billion) to Rs 23,588 crore (Rs 235.88 billion) -- nearly a fifth of the wealth of all the billionaires put together, and 2.6 per cent of the total wealth that all Indians hold in stocks.

Talking of legitimacy, it is interesting that those paid the highest salaries are invariably those who control the shareholding in a company, and therefore its board.

So the Ambanis, Munjals and Anji Reddy get paid far more than M S Banga at Hindustan Lever and Yogi Deveshwar at ITC. But the numbers are still nowhere near the level that lost Richard Grasso his job, since the highest pay packet in India is less than three million dollars, for a company with over $10 billion in sales.

If you were counting wealth in billions of dollars, as the American magazines do, only four Indians would make it to a global list. But the more interesting numbers come when you go down the ladder to the millionaires.

By one count, the US now has 7 million millionaires, up from one million in the early 1990s. If we were to look for an equivalent list in India (and a dollar millionaire is worth Rs 4.5 crore), private bankers say 50,000 Indians qualify. Or, one Indian for every 140 Americans.

Moving even further down the ladder, to those described as the 'mass affluent', the definition in India is as modest as our definition of the middle class. You are part of the 'mass affluent' if your annual family income is Rs 450,000 and more.

There are 9 million such households (5 per cent of the total!), and they form the core of every upscale marketer's target audience -- though true scale comes when you move even further down the income ladder, as C K Prahalad never tires of pointing out.

After all, there are 70 million households with TV sets, 50 million with telephones and 50 million with motorcycles or scooters. Sunil Mittal used to go round on one, hawking his telephone instruments, not so long ago.

Four years ago, he was worth Rs 163 crore (Rs 1.63 billion). Now he is worth around Rs 5,000 crore (Rs 50 billion), and is a dollar billionaire. Boring, you said?

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