Thursday, March 11, 2010

How To Make A Billion Dollars (Without Really Trying)

While it might not be quite as earth shattering as the Lara Bingle and Michael Clark kerfuffle, you might be stunned to learn that William Gates III is no longer the world’s richest man. Neither is the Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett. According to Forbes Magazine, the richest man in the world is a fellow called Carlos Slim from Mexico with a fortune calculated at US$53.3 billion. Bill Gates takes second place with US$53 billion, and Warren Buffett has been relegated to third place with a mere US$47 billion. You almost feel sorry for him.

Everybody knows that Bill Gates made his money in software, while Warren Buffett is the world’s best known share market investor. Carlos Slim is in telecommunications, and the rest of the top ten are in oil, steel, fashion and retail. The youngest billionaire in the world is 25 year old Mark Zuckerberg who is responsible for creating the Facebook social networking website, which is an extreme example of just how far a lonely geek will go to try to get some friends. Sadly, while his website is extraordinarily popular, it can also be supremely frustrating so now he has probably got even less friends as a result.

The good news is that the net wealth of the world’s billionaires has increased by around 50% over the past year. That’s got to be good news, because if they’re doing well that means the rest of us must also be doing well. After all we’re getting paid for working in their companies, cleaning their houses and walking their dogs. It’s the well known trickle down effect. If you don’t actually feel any better off, obviously you’re just not looking at things the right way. While it might seem obscene that so much should be in the hands of so few, they have to spend it somewhere and that’s where the rest of us should be lining up to cash in.

The number of billionaires has also increased to 1011, up from 793 last year, but still not as many as before the Global Financial Crisis. Of course, that explains why so many seem to have done so well in the last 12 months. The GFC was a big setback for everybody and billionaires were no exception. In fact they lost more because they had more, which is kind of reassuring for the rest of us because quite frankly I couldn’t afford to lose the US$68 billion that the top three billionaires did during the crisis. Now that the recovery appears to be underway it’s no surprise that the big boys are once again packing their piggy banks.

If you’re wondering about how well Australian billionaires have been doing there are eleven of them on the list, or roughly one percent of the total. The highest placed Australian is Andrew Forrest who runs Fortescue Metals with US$4.1 billion and he is ranked at number 208 in the world. I hate to say it but it looks like Australia is underperforming and really we should all try to do better. We might be a small nation but we are supposed to represent 1.5% of the world economy so by rights there should be at least another three or four billionaires in Australia. If we had a national sporting team underperforming in this way there would be a national outrage.

But how to do better? Interestingly, it seems that you don’t have to be a Capitalist any more. For the first time, the country with the most billionaires outside of the United States is now China. Who would have thought that this could happen in a Communist country? I mean, didn’t they have a law against it or something? Either Communism has changed the rules, or there are an awful lot of Chinese people bucking the system. Oh well, if you can’t beat them, join them. I think maybe I’ll sell my BHP shares and move to China to start up a social networking website.

At least there are plenty of customers over there.

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