The Forbes rich list - what happened to technology?
However driven by short-term share prices, it feels like a significant moment that the world’s richest person as measured by Forbes is no longer Bill Gates, and is not even an American. That crown now goes to a Mexican, Carlos Slim, someone...
That crown now goes to a Mexican, Carlos Slim, someone few have heard of despite his $53.5 billion (£35.6 billion) fortune built on the back of Mexico-based telecoms company, America Movil.
That the fourth richest person is India’s Mukesh Ambani, and the number of Chinese, Russian, Turkish and South American billionaires continues to rise, has caused most commentators to read the list through this now well-worn idea that power as well as wealth is shifting from East to West.
That’s a bit exaggerated. The top 25 are mostly old money from the traditional wealth core, but you can see a shift nonetheless further down in the ranks of the merely 'obscenely rich', where a lot of new world names turn up.
Here’s what weird about the list if you go beyond the familiar territory of the top 20 or 30.
Hunting through it for familiar names is like trying to find the Rolling Stones or the Flock of Seagulls on today’s top music charts. The majority of these guys (and they are overwhelmingly guys of course) are little known outside their home country.
Remarkably few of the risers have anything to do with technology. There’s Bill Gates and Larry Ellison of course, and Carlos Slim has a telecoms company. Further down you’ll find Michael Dell, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer. Keep going. The new wave from Asia, South America and India is all about empires built on raw materials, industrial conglomerates and money dripping from nationalisation of state industries.
Quite a lot of these wealthy new-worlders look like skilled monopolists, sucking money out of markets in the absence of the competition they would face in established wealth zones such as the US. Slim has been accused of as much in Mexico - would it be possible for a single person to own virtually every phone connection in a country such as the US? Unlikely.
In the end you can’t help but wonder whether Forbes measures the right thing. It is not how many billionaires a country has that matters, but what they made their money from, how long it took them to make it, and how many new faces appear on the list over time to challenge their supremacy.
On that measure, the new world has a long way to go. It has a growing elite of super-wealthy as one might expect from growing economies (think of the US during the rise of the Rockerfellers), but they seem to find money rather quickly, to make it from markets that favour monopolies, and have too few challengers. Handing power to these people will impress Forbes but it might spell trouble further down the road when the time comes to create new industries nobody has yet thought of.
That’s what Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Larry Page managed to do, build empires out of nothing. As yet, India’s or China’s Bill Gates is nowhere to be seen. But for this apparent change of power to be sustained as something real they will have to be found.
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