The world has become a wealth wasteland. Like the rest of us, the richest people in the world have endured a financial disaster over the past year. Today there are 793 people on our list of the World's Billionaires, a 30 per cent decline from a year ago.
Of the 1,125 billionaires who made last year's ranking, 373 fell off the list--355 from declining fortunes and 18 who died. There are 38 newcomers, plus three moguls who returned to the list after regaining their 10-figure fortunes. It is the first time since 2003 that the world has had a net loss in the number of billionaires.
The world's richest are also a lot poorer. Their collective net worth is $2.4 trillion, down $2 trillion from a year ago. Their average net worth fell 23 per cent to $3 billion. The last time the average was that low was in 2003.
Bill Gates lost $18 billion but regained his title as the world's richest man. Warren Buffett, last year's No. 1, saw his fortune decline $25 billion as shares of Berkshire Hathaway fell nearly 50 per cent in 12 months, but he still managed to slip just one spot to No. 2. Mexican telecom titan Carlos Slim Helu also lost $25 billion and dropped one spot to No. 3.
It was hard to avoid the carnage, whether you were in stocks, commodities, real estate or technology. Even people running profitable businesses were hammered by frozen credit markets, weak consumer spending or declining currencies.
The biggest loser in the world this year, by dollars, was last year's biggest gainer. India's Anil Ambani lost $32 billion--76 per cent of his fortune--as shares of his Reliance Communications, Reliance Power and Reliance Capital all collapsed.
Ambani is one of 24 Indian billionaires, all but one of whom are poorer than a year ago. Another 29 Indians lost their billionaire status entirely as India's stock market tumbled 44 per cent in the past year and the Indian rupee depreciated 18 per cent against the dollar. It is no longer the top spot in Asia for billionaires, ceding that title to China, which has 28.
Russia became the epicenter of the world's commodities bust, dropping 55 billionaires--two-thirds of its 2008 crop. Among them: Dmitry Pumpyansky, an industrialist from the resource-rich Ural mountain region, who lost $5 billion as shares of his pipe producer, TMK, sank 84 per cent.
Also gone is Vasily Anisimov, father of Moscow's Paris Hilton, Anna Anisimova, who lost $3.2 billion as the value of his Metalloinvest Holding, one of Russia's largest ore mining and processing firms, fell along with his real estate holdings.
Twelve months ago Moscow overtook New York as the billionaire capital of the world, with 74 tycoons to New York's 71. Today there are 27 in Moscow and 55 in New York.
After slipping in recent years, the U.S. is regaining its dominance as a repository of wealth. Americans account for 44 per cent of the money and 45 per cent of the list's slots, up seven and three percentage points from last year, respectively. Still, it has 110 fewer billionaires than a year ago.
Those with ties to Wall Street were particularly hard hit. Former head of AIG Maurice (Hank) Greenberg saw his $1.9 billion fortune nearly wiped out after the insurance behemoth had to be bailed out by the US government. Today Greenberg is worth less than $100 million. Former Citigroup chairman Sandy Weill also falls from the ranks.
Last year there were 39 American billionaire hedge fund managers; this year there are 28. Twelve American private equity tycoons dropped out of the billionaire ranks.
Blackstone Group's Stephen Schwarzman, who lost $4 billion, and Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts' Henry Kravis, who lost $2.5 billion, retain their billionaire status despite their weaker fortunes.
Worldwide, 80 of the 355 drop-offs from last year's list had fortunes derived from finance or investments.
While 656 billionaires lost money in the past year, 44 added to their fortunes. Those who made money did so by catering to budget-conscious consumers (discount retailer Uniqlo's Tadashi Yanai), predicting the crash (investor John Paulson) or cashing out in the nick of time (Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberte).
So is there anywhere one can still make a fortune these days? The 38 newcomers offer a few clues. Among the more notable new billionaires are Mexican Joaquín Guzmán Loera, one of the biggest suppliers of cocaine to the U.S.; Wang Chuanfu of China, whose BYD Co. began selling electric cars in December, and American John Paul Dejoria, who got the world clean with his Paul Mitchell shampoos and sloppy with his Patron Tequila.