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That's rich

The world has 946 billionaires, according to Forbes magazine. Most of them even earned their fortunes.

March 17, 2007

IT SHOULD SIMPLY be called the green list. Forbes magazine's annual tally of the world's billionaires is all about those who have a lot of greenbacks -- the magazine estimates there are 946 billionaires around the world -- and the 6.5 billion rest of us on the planet who are green with envy.

Actually, being on the list is a bit of a mixed blessing, as Carlos Slim Helu well knows. The Mexican billionaire is ranked No. 3, worth about $49 billion. Thanks to a strong year for Mexico's stock market, Slim was a staggering $19 billion richer than the previous year. And he is sure to pass Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to assume the top spot in the rankings if those other two keep giving away money.

This is all a bit awkward for Slim, especially because most of his wealth stems from his control of Telmex, the once state-owned telecom giant privatized in 1990. In a relatively poor country renowned for its crony capitalism and lack of true competition in too many industries, the vastness of Slim's wealth raises plenty of questions and eyebrows. So much so that Slim called a news conference this week in response to his Forbes ranking. His reassuring message, beyond arguing that he was engaged in competitive markets, boiled down to a pleading, "Hey, I could get a lot poorer"; most of his wealth is tied to the stock market. Indeed, since Forbes crunched its numbers Feb. 9, Mexico's leading index has declined nearly 4%.

Slim may have garnered the headlines this year, but there is plenty to marvel at in this snapshot of $3.5 trillion of global wealth. Ingvar Kamprad, the Swede responsible for IKEA, is worth $33 billion. Imagine how much more he'd be worth if he started a side business to help people put together that furniture once you got it home. The global distribution of billionaires is also quite interesting. Turkey is home to 25 billionaires; Hong Kong accounts for 21; but France has only 15. The oil-rich former Soviet Union (adding those in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) would rank second to the United States as home to 65 billionaires. Quite a few of these billionaires in emerging markets such as Mexico and Russia were helped along the way by cronyism and weak antitrust laws.

Some of the fortunes ranked really are the product of sheer imagination and merit, as shown by the appearance of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas among the 415 U.S. billionaires. On a reassuringly Horatio Alger-like note, Forbes editors point out that 60% of the billionaires made their fortunes from scratch. Once you have your first few hundred million, we hear, it gets easier.

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