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Russia, Others Tumble On World's Richest List

  • Nikola Krastev

Forty-three-year-old metals baron Mikhail Prokhorov is Russia's richest man on this year's "Forbes" list.

Forty-three-year-old metals baron Mikhail Prokhorov is Russia's richest man on this year's "Forbes" list.

"Forbes" has described its 2009 rankings of the world's richest as a milestone in the survey's 23-year history, with record declines in both the number of billionaires worldwide and their cumulative wealth.

This year's list includes 793 billionaires, worth a combined $2.4 trillion, a dramatic drop-off from the 1,125 people worth $4.4 trillion one year earlier.

At least one of the fallen billionaires, Iceland's Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, saw his fortune entirely wiped out when Landsbanki was nationalized amid measures to contain the financial crisis sweeping the globe.

As a result of the diminished stature among Russia's business elite, New York replaced Moscow as home to the most billionaires: 55 versus 27. London squeezed in second, with 28.

Other figures, like Poland's decline from six billionaires to one, reflected the changing fortunes of entire countries.

Break With Trends

Publisher and editor Steve Forbes told reporters in New York that because the recent global economic woes originated in the financial sector, it was unsurprising that billionaires whose fortunes were earned in that category had tumbled from the list.

But he said almost no business area had been spared the dramatic downturn, including "hits" in the real-estate and natural-resources sectors.

"Developing countries have been especially hard hit," Forbes said. He rattled off countries whose wealthiest entrepreneurs had suffered: Turkey, from 35 to 13 billionaires; India, from 53 to 24; China, from 42 to 28.

"The big loser in the Middle East was Turkey, it just was decimated," Kroll said. "It was one of the big positive stories of a couple of years ago, along with Russia and India -- those countries really came on strong and were adding really quickly. But I guess with all of that risk-taking and with all of that growth came the potential for drops and that's what we saw."

Forbes noted that "like [Microsoft's] Bill Gates," China had moved ahead of India because "they didn't lose quite as much as the others."

One of the hardest-hit categories was billionaires under the age of 40. Only 18 of the 50 in 2008 remain, according to "Forbes." Last year's youngest billionaire, the 24-year-old founder of social-networking website Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, did not make this year's list.

Russian Effect

Luisa Kroll, a senior "Forbes" editor, said the average age of the list's billionaires rose from 61 last year to almost 64 in 2009.

She blamed the disappearance from the list of the 55 young Russian billionaires, whose average age was 46.

"Russia's richest man last year, Oleg Deripaska, who made the top 10, had to sell out stakes in several companies to meet margin calls and he had to get a stake bail-out from Russia [government]," Kroll said. "The oligarchs, we figure, got about 11 billion [dollars] in state funding so far."

After Russian upstarts stormed the list in the mid-1990s, Kroll had commented that billionaire watchers were grappling with the appropriate short-hand for entrants whose fortunes were neither inherited nor self-made but stemmed from "their ability to gain some of these assets on the cheap."

This year's richest Russian is 43-year-old metals mogul Mikhail Prokhorov, whose wealth "Forbes" estimates at $9.5 billion.

Five Kazakhs dropped out of the rankings but were replaced by two of their countrymen: Alijan Ibragimov, worth $1.2 billion in mining and metals, and Bakhytbek Baiseitov, a banker worth $1 billion.

In Ukraine, two billionaires fell off the list but three entered the scene: Victor Pinchuk, with $2.6 billion in steel; Rinat Akhmetov, with $1.8 billion in steel and coal; and Henadiy Boholyubov, with $1.1 billion in banking.

Waiting Out The Storm

Matthew Miller, another senior editor at "Forbes" magazine, said he asked several billionaires how they hoped to maintain their wealth in turbulent times.

"Are they out buying distressed assets? Are they doing anything with these minimal cash piles that they have?" Miller said. "The answer is 'no.' They're still looking for bottom; most billionaires are holding cash, they're holding gold, and they're in a holding pattern -- they're looking for some semblance of bottom, some return to reality a little bit."

Miller said that looking forward, their responses suggested that "if we're able to get some bottoming out, you'll see the innovation [and] the entrepreneurship" return.

"Two-thirds of this list are self-made billionaires," he added.

For only the second time in the list's history, "Forbes" included a reputed drug-trafficker from South America -- a man who is reputedly one of the major suppliers of cocaine to the United States. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was tied for 701st on the list, with a fortune estimated to be worth $1 billion. In the early 1990s, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was ranked among the world's wealthiest.

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