World's Richest People: Asia Poised to Pass U.S.

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Wang Chuanfu, chairman of BYD, at the Detroit Auto Show on Jan. 12, 2009

As Asia's economic growth races ahead of that of the U.S., the investment portfolios of Asia's wealthiest people are picking up enough momentum to launch them past their North American counterparts.

A report released on Oct. 13 by Merrill Lynch and consulting firm Capgemini Financial Services projects that with the global recession easing, the total net worth of Asia-Pacific's wealthy — those with at least $1 million in investable assets — is set to grow at a faster pace than the holdings of rich people in other parts of the world. If this trend takes hold, the total value of assets held by Asia's rich could surpass the combined assets of North America's wealthy by 2013. All the world's millionaires will have a combined net worth of $48.5 trillion in four years, according to Merrill Lynch–Capgemini. Of that, $13.5 trillion will be held by Asia's élite, compared with $12.7 trillion for all of North America. Arvind Sundaresan, Asia-Pacific sales chief for Capgemini, says the projection is based on economic data and growth rates as well as interviews with wealth managers. He adds that his company's estimate is "very much on the conservative side."

This doesn't necessarily mean Bill Gates (net worth $40 billion) will lose his place in Guinness World Records as the world's richest man anytime soon. But as Eastern economies, powered by a resurgent China, bounce back, the ranks of the planet's wealthiest are becoming increasingly populated by Asians. China in particular is minting nouveaux riches at a remarkable rate. Five years ago, the country had just three billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List, which annually ranks the country's 1,000 wealthiest individuals. Today, China has 130 billionaires, according to Hurun's latest ranking, released on Oct. 13. That's up from 101 in 2008 (the U.S. has 359 billionaires, according to Forbes).

Topping China's rich list is Wang Chuanfu, founder of BYD, a Chinese car manufacturer that makes hybrid electric cars. Wang, who is worth an estimated $5.1 billion, wasn't even on the list last year. But BYD's stock price has been soaring since Warren Buffett — who is ranked by Forbes as the world's second richest man, with a $37 billion fortune — invested in the company in September 2008. Fast-growing BYD is also getting help from China's buoyant car market, which, despite the sluggish global economy, is expected to grow 5% in 2009.

Wong Kwong Yu, named by Hurun last year as China's richest person, with $6.3 billion, fell off the list this year after the tycoon was convicted and sent to jail for manipulating share prices of a medical company controlled by his brother. This year's second richest Chinese citizen is so-called paper queen Zhang Yin, who has accumulated $4.9 billion by buying recycled paper from the U.S. and turning it into cardboard boxes.

Although Asians have been getting rich quicker than most, this doesn't mean the region's millionaires were unscathed by the financial crisis. In fact, during the depths of the market meltdown, they fared more poorly than the average Daddy Warbucks. According to the Merrill Lynch–Capgemini survey, wealthy Asians in 2008 lost 35% of their net worth, compared with a global average loss of 24%. But Asian stock and property markets — and the investments of wealthy Asians — have rebounded sharply since March as regional economies shrug off recession. China's GDP is projected to expand 8.5% this year, compared with 1.5% growth in the U.S.

Wang of BYD may have a ways to go before he challenges Gates for the title of world's wealthiest person. But Rupert Hoogewerf, founder and compiler of the Hurun Rich List, says that given current trends, "there's a very strong possibility that in 15 years' time, you'll see somebody in China being No. 1 in the world."