World's wealthiest gain US$1 trillion in 2017 on market exuberance

Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos added the most in 2017, a US$34.2 billion gain that knocked Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates out of his spot as the world's richest person in October.
Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos added the most in 2017, a US$34.2 billion gain that knocked Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates out of his spot as the world's richest person in October.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - The richest people on earth became US$1 trillion richer in 2017, more than four times last year's gain, as stock markets shrugged off economic, social and political divisions to reach record highs.

The 23-per-cent increase on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily ranking of the world's 500 richest people, compares with an almost 20-per-cent increase for both the MSCI World Index and Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos added the most in 2017, a US$34.2 billion gain that knocked Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates out of his spot as the world's richest person in October.

Gates, 62, had held the spot since May 2013, and has been donating much of his fortune to charity, including a US$4.6 billion pledge he made to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in August.

Bezos, whose net worth topped US$100 billion at the end of November, currently has a net worth of US$99.6 billion compared with US$91.3 billion for Gates.

George Soros also gave away a substantial part of his fortune, revealing in October that his family office had given US$18 billion to his Open Society Foundations over the past several years, dropping the billionaire investor to No. 195 on the Bloomberg ranking, with a net worth of US$8 billion.

By the end of trading Tuesday, Dec 26, the 500 billionaires controlled US$5.3 trillion, up from US$4.4 trillion on Dec 27, 2016.

"It's part of the second-most robust and second-longest bull market in history," said Mike Ryan, chief investment officer for the Americas at UBS Wealth Management, on Dec 18.

"Of all the guidance we gave people over the course of this year, the most important advice was staying invested."

Winners

The 38 Chinese billionaires on the Bloomberg index added US$177 billion in 2017, a 65-per-cent gain that was the biggest of the 49 countries represented.

Hui Ka Yan, founder of developer China Evergrande Group, added US$25.9 billion, a 350- per-cent jump from last year, and the second-biggest US dollar gain on the index, after Bezos.

Technology billionaire Ma Huateng, co-founder of messaging service Tencent Holdings, became Asia's second-richest person when his fortune nearly doubled to US$41 billion.

The number of Asian billionaires surpassed the US for the first time, according to a UBS Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers report. The US has the largest presence on the index, with 159 billionaires who added US$315 billion, an 18-per-cent gain that gives them a collective net worth of US$2 trillion.

Russia's 27 richest people put behind them the economic pain that followed President Vladimir Putin's 2014 annexation of Crimea, adding US$29 billion to US$275 billion, surpassing the collective net worth they had before western economic sanctions began.

It was also a banner year for tech moguls, with the 57 technology billionaires on the index adding US$262 billion, a 35-per-cent increase that was the most of any sector on the ranking.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg had the fourth-largest US dollar increase on the index, adding US$22.6 billion, or 45 per cent, and filed plans to sell 18 per cent of his stake in the social media giant as part of his plan to give away the majority of his US$72.6 billion fortune.

In all, the 440 billionaires on the index who added to their fortunes in 2017, gained a combined US$1.05 trillion.

Losers

The fortune of French telecommunications billionaire Patrick Drahi fell US$4.1 billion to US$6.3 billion, a 39 per cent drop.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, the richest person in Saudi Arabia, dropped US$1.9 billion to US$17.8 billion after he was detained in a crackdown against corruption led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that targeted royals, government officials and business leaders.

There were 60 billionaires who fell from the ranking, including South African retailer Christo Wiese, whose fortune dropped to US$1.8 billion from a peak of US$7.7 billion, in August 2016, after news of an accounting scandal at his Steinhoff International Holdings broke on Dec 5.

Sumner Redstone, 94, also fell off the list as CBS owner Viacom continued to grapple with a bitter battle for control between his daughter and other executives, while Rupert Murdoch, 86, sidestepped succession concerns with a December deal to sell much of 21st Century Fox's entertainment assets to Walt Disney. Redstone shed US$90 million. Murdoch added US$2.7 billion.

In all, the 58 of the 500 billionaires who saw their fortunes shrink in 2017, lost a combined US$46 billion.

New Wealth

The Bloomberg index discovered 67 hidden billionaires in 2017. Renaissance Technologies's Henry Laufer was identified with a net worth of US$4 billion in April. Robert Mercer, 71, who plans to step down as co-CEO of the world's most profitable trading fund on Jan 1, could not be confirmed as a billionaire.

Two fish billionaires were caught: Russia's Vitaly Orlov and Chuck Bundrant of Trident Seafood.

A Brazilian tycoon who built a US$1.3 billion fortune with Latin America's biggest wind developer was interviewed in April.

Two New York real estate moguls were identified, Ben Ashkenazy and Joel Wiener.

Several technology startup billionaires were identified, including the chief executive of Roku and the two co-founders of Wayfair.

Investor euphoria created a number of bitcoin billionaires, including Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss, with the value of the cryptocurrency soaring to more than US$16,000 Tuesday, up from US$1,140 on Jan 4. The leap came with a chorus of warnings, including from Janet Yellen, who called the emerging tender a "highly speculative asset" at her last news conference as chair of the Federal Reserve, on Dec 13.

With wealth surging to new highs, billionaires may quickly learn that a billion dollars does not buy what it used to. The price of housing has topped US$300 million, the cost of divorce has hit US$1 billion and a rediscovered painting by Leonardo da Vinci sold for US$450.3 million at a Christie's auction in November, the most expensive work ever sold.

"Would you believe it?" Eli Broad, who has a US$7.4 billion fortune and his own museum in Los Angeles, said after the sale. "It's wild."