Home .Finance The richer they are, the heavier they fall
The richer they are, the heavier they fall
Monday, 16 March 2009 12:39

Everyone is saying that it is the poor who are really being hit by the global financial crisis.  It seems kinda obvious that that would be the case.  Many are losing their homes, their savings, their jobs, their health insurance and so on.  In the developing world, factories are closing by the day.  And given that Wall Street is responsible for the crisis, it would be indecent to suggest that it is not the poor who are suffering.

But is this really true?  As the most recent edition of Fortune magazine shows, the rich have also been taken to the cleaners.  After all, many of their companies are in deep trouble, and they invested massively in the fancy financial products invented by the golden boys of Wall Street.

Over the past year, the Fortune list of the World's Billionaires shortened by a full 30% to a mere 793 people (compared with 1125 billionaires last year).  It is the first time since 2003 that the world has had a net drop in the number of billionaires.  All together, the world's richest have a collective net worth of $2.4 trillion, a fall of $2 trillion compared with a year ago.

Bill Gates is back on top as the world's richest man with $40 billion, but he lost a cool $18 billion.  His partner in philanthropy, Warren Buffet, who was last year's richest man, now only has $37 billion, after losing $25 billion.  Mexican telecom titan Carlos Slim Helue also lost $25 billion and dropped one spot to number 3.

The biggest loser in the world this year was last year's biggest gainer.  India's Anil Ambani lost $32 billion (76% of his fortune!) as shares of his Reliance Communications, Reliance Power and Reliance Capital all collapsed.  More than half of India's billionaires lost their billionaire status.  India is no longer Asia's top spot for billionaires, that title now belongs to China.

Russia became the epicentre of the world's commodities bust, and lost 55 billionaires, two-thirds of last year's crop.  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 a mere 27 in Moscow whereas New York still has 55.

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 billion.  Former Citigroup Chairman Sandy Weill also fell out of the billionaire ranks.

Donald Trump is estimated to have lost nearly half his net worth.  His casino company is in bankruptcy again.  And his $1 billion hotel and condo tower in Chicago can't find buyers.

At least seven billionaires fell prey to Bernard Madoff's alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme.  Among them are film director Steven Spielberg, art collector Norman Braman and real estate developer Mort Zuckerman.

So is there anywhere one can still make a fortune these days?  This year's 38 new billionaires offer a few clues.  Among the more notable new billionaires are Mexican Joaquin Guzman Loera, one of the biggest suppliers of cocaine to the US; 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!

So, while we worry about the effects of the financial crisis on the world's poor, feel reassured the world's rich have also been taken to the cleaners -- even if they are still sitting relatively pretty.

Reference: Forbes Special Report, accessed on line on 16 March 2009 -- www.forbes.com

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