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Listing The World’s Billionaires: A Not-So-Exact Science

Filed by KOSU News in Business.
March 4, 2013

There are more than 1,400 billionaires in the world right now, according to two sources — one in the U.S., and one in China. But the tallies by Forbes and Hurun Report differ on key points, including whether there are now more billionaires in Asia than anywhere else.

Forbes says its list of billionaires, released Monday, “now boasts 1,426 names, with an aggregate net worth of $5.4 trillion, up from $4.6 trillion.” Shanghai’s Hurun Report, which compiled its first global list this year after long tracking China’s wealthy, says it found 1,453 billionaires, with $5.5 trillion in combined worth.

Those numbers aren’t far from each other, especially considering recent volatile economic conditions in global markets. And they show that the amount of money held by fewer than 1,500 people — let’s split the difference, and call it $5.45 trillion — would earn them a spot as the world’s fourth-largest GDP, if we were the type of people who conflate producing wealth with holding onto it.

Both of the lists are topped by Carlos Slim Helu and his family, of Mexico. And they agree that the U.S. has more billionaires than any other country.

But a key difference between the lists arises when Hurun Report states, “Asia was home to the highest number of billionaires this year with most of them operating in real estate sector.”

Forbes says the entire Asia-Pacific region has 386 billionaires, while the Hurun list says Asia has 559 of them — not including the 17 who are in Oceania.

So, why the disparity? It could certainly come down to fluctuations in individuals’ net worth — Forbes cites Brazil’s Eike Batista, “whose fortune dropped by $19.4 billion, or equivalent to about $50 million a day,” in 2012.

The differences might also reflect the difficulty of tallying the wealth of people whose holdings are often spread across continents and industries. And not all of them want to advertise their wealth — particularly in China, which Hurun Report says has 317 billionaires.

As The Vancouver Sun reported yesterday, China’s wealthy use many means to smuggle their money overseas, hoping to insulate themselves from both the tax office and political shifts.

Citing Global Financial Integrity’s estimate that $602.9 billion fled China in 2011, The Sun’s Zoe McKnight writes that the methods ranged from using “underground banks” to putting suitcases full of cash on airplanes.

“For every billionaire that Hurun Report has found,” the magazine company’s chairman Rupert Hoogewerf says, “I estimate we have missed at least two, meaning that today there are probably 4000… billionaires in the world.”

The magazine concluded that “valuing the wealth of China’s richest is as much an art as it is a science.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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