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Which Billionaires Have Fallen on Hard Times? Which Actually Rocked Last Year? What the Forbes Billionaire List Says About the Economy.

Sandy Weill and Hank Greenberg are no longer billionaires, and the great Warren Buffett took a hit too. But the Forbes annual billionaire's list reaveals that Mayor Mike Bloomberg got richer.

Sandy Weill and Hank Greenberg are no longer billionaires, and Warren Buffett has lost a staggering $25 billion from Berkshire Hathaway’s stock decline. The personal fortune of Kenneth Griffin contracted by $2 billion. But with $1.5 billion remaining, the Chicago hedge fund manager does qualify as a billionaire—as does, of course, the vastly richer Oracle of Omaha with $37 billion in wealth. On the extreme end, Greenberg, former boss of AIG, watched his wealth almost evaporate from $1.9 billion to less than $100 million.

But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg actually grew wealthier, as did George Soros and hedge fund manager John Paulson (the guy who bet against subprime before the melt down). Bloomberg is now the richest man in Big Town—and that’s saying something.

But for many staggeringly wealthy financial types tracked by Forbes, 2008 sucked. Yet finance is one of the top two sources of global wealth, according to the compilers of the Forbes’ 2009 list of the World’s Billionaires just published. (Real estate is the other.) It’s no wonder then that financial advisors, brokers and money managers, who service the ultra-wealthy, pay special attention when the list is released each year, Forbes’ publicist Elizabeth Wasden told Registered Rep.

There is really no surprise in the destruction of wealth across various industries. As the global economy is convulsed by the credit crisis, the stock market rout and collapse of brand name Wall Street houses—and as one economy after another tips into recession—the fortunes of some of the world’s wealthiest are suffering. “It was hard to avoid the carnage, whether you were in stocks, commodities, real estate or technology,” according to a Forbes’ profile on the 2009 list, which compares it with the previous year's data. “Even people running profitable businesses were hammered by frozen credit markets, weak consumer spending or declining currencies.”

The total number of billionaires on Forbes’ 2009 annual roster of worldwide wealth declined by 30 percent, to 793 from 1,125. The last time the list dipped from one year to the next was 2003, and this time the decrease in wealth is massive. The overall net worth of the list is $2.4 trillion, down $2 trillion. The typical billionaire has a fortune of $3 billion. Bill Gates, who lost $18 billion over the past year, is the world’s wealthiest person. The Oracle of Omaha is No. 2. Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helu and his family are No. 3 with a net worth of $35 billion.
The biggest loser, in dollar terms at least, was also the largest wealth accumulator twelve months ago. He’s Anil Ambani of India (which produced 24 billionaires). Ambani shed $32 billion, or 76 percent of his wealth, as share prices of his Reliance Communications, Reliance Power and Reliance Capital crashed.
Not surprisingly, some financial types took huge hits these past twelve months. Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group lost $4 billion, and Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts’ Henry Kravis was $2.5 billion poorer. But their billionaire status is intact. How much exactly former Citigroup boss Sandy Weill lost is not known.

But tellingly, finance remains a major contributor to individual wealth worldwide. The list is sprinkled with bold-faced names such as Abigail Johnson, Carl Icahn and Ron Perlman. When Forbes first compiled its Top 400 list of wealthy people back in 1982, oil dominated the roster. (For more analysis about the list—the qualities members of the list have—please click here for The Habits of Wealth, an article that appeared in Registered Rep. magazine in January 2008. In this story we interview Peter Bernstein and Annalyn Swan, authors of All The Money In The World: How the Forbes 400 Make—and Spend—Their Fortunes.)

Today, finance may be hurting in some corners, but the sums of wealth generated elsewhere are enormous. Indeed, among the Top 20 on this year’s Billionaire List, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (#17) –who earns a token $1 annually—saw his net worth climb. This came about because of a “reevaluation” of Bloomberg L.P. after the Mayor purchased a 20 percent stake from Merrill Lynch last year for $4.5 billion. Hedge fund manager John Paulson saw his net worth double from $ 3 billion to $6 billion. Last year, according to Forbes, his Paulson Advantage fund rose 38 percent as the S&P dropped 39 percent. George Soros, meanwhile, gained $2 billion and his net worth climbed $2 billion to $11 billion. The youngest self-made American, according to Forbes, is a former Enron oil trader called John Arnold. His hedge fund Centaurus Energy is “said to be up 80 percent last year,” Forbes says. His net worth is listed at $2.7 billion, a 12-month gain of $1.2 billion.

All told, the U.S produced 359 billionaires (125 less than last year) with total net worth of $1.1 trillion, compared with $1.6 trillion a year earlier. Europe produced 196 billionaires on the 2009 list, generating $665 billion in total net worth. In 2008, it had 298 billionaires with total net worth of $1.4 trillion.


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