“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the richest of them all?” Like every year, the mirror of the world’s richest – aka Forbes Magazine – has provided a full length answer, publishing its well-known list of billionaires. What has changed? In a nutshell, quite a few things.
The first five in the list are well-known names: on top is Bill Gates, who has been a constant presence for a long time but had been dispossessed of his title for four years. He has now regained the first position from Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico. Warren Buffett, the investment guru, again made it in the top five, accompanied by Amancio Ortega – retail brand Zara – and Larry Ellison of Oracle.
According to Forbes, the rich have got richer. “The ranks of the world’s billionaires continue to scale new heights – and stretch to new corners of the world. Our global wealth team found 1,645 billionaires with an aggregate net worth of $6.4 trillion, up from $5.4 trillion a year ago,” the paper reported. Even the tiny elite of the elite – the 20 most moneyed people in the world – owns more in 2014 than it did one year before: $838.6 billion, up from $714.5 billion in 2013.
Interesting developments include 268 new billionaires – a record – and a rising number of women among the elite: 172 billionaires are from Venus this year, more than ever before. The number of ladies is up 25 per cent from 138 last year and 60 per cent from two years ago.
Asia’s performance keeps on nosing up, but with somewhat mixed results. The Asia-Pacific region is now the third-largest home to billionaires, with 444 coming from the East, trailing Europe (468) and the United States (492), but it is also the area which reported most drop-offs, 47 in total. The region’s top dog, Li Ka-shing, took a blow, too: he is now number 20, down from number 8 last year. Malaysia added four billionaires, placing it 18th on the list, while Indonesia, which experienced a currency crisis recently, has lost eight of its former champions.
China’s performance has been strong – as it has always been in recent years. The country broke a record with 152 billionaires, up 25 per cent from 122 in 2013. Yet, no Mainland tycoon made it in the top 20, with the richest individual in the People’s Republic, Wang Jianlin (Dalian Wanda Group), ending up 64th, followed by Ma Huateng of Tencent Holdings and Robin Li of Baidu, number 80 and 91 respectively.
From a longer perspective, the rise of China is a stunning phenomenon and a visible result of decades of 10 per cent growth. In an interview with CNBC, Forbes’ editor Randall Lane argued that China’s rise to prominence is ” probably the biggest trend coming out of here… we had a little over 30 newcomers just from mainland China.” That is all the more impressive when one takes into account that the number of mainland billionaires, said Mr Lane, was pretty much zero 20 years ago.
Asia also boasts the youngest individual on the ranking: Perenna Kei, Hong Kong-born and just 24 years old, who has a ‘net worth’ of US$1.3 billion. Ms Kei is now the controlling owner of Logan Properties, a real estate behemoth, but she might own quite a bit of her success to her father, Logan’s chairman and CEO Ji Haipeng. According to Forbes, she acts “in accordance with Mr Ji directions.”
The most obvious clue to Asia’s and particularly China’s rise in the ranks of the wealthiest does not appear on the famous list but is nevertheless connected to Forbes. The magazine, an icon of American capitalism, is in hot financial water and has been looking for a buyer. Rumor has it there is a huge chance that it will be sold to Fosun International, a Chinese conglomerate.
The symbolic significance of the possible sale was not lost on commentators, with David Carr writing in the New York Times that “the Far East is a place that is not only making much of the world’s goods, the countries there are also manufacturing wealth at an astounding rate. Forbes might be a nice trophy for a foreign buyer as a way of signaling its arrival. It would not be the first time a publication was bought as a multiple of ego rather than earnings.”