Billionaire list shrinks, Phil Knight and NW Microsofters survive

Forbes Billionaire’s list diminishing, but the NW Microsoft triad remain strong

The world’s richest have not escaped the reaches of the financial disasters of the past year. According to Forbes magazine there are 332 less billionaires, a 30% decline from one year ago. Their collective net worth is $2.4 trillion, down $2 trillion, and their average net worth fell 23% to $3 billion. There are fewer of them, and their collective net worth has fallen, but the shift of power that remains may surprise many.

After slipping in recent years, the U.S. is regaining its dominance as a repository of wealth. Americans account for 44% of the money and 45% of the list’s slots, up seven and three percentage points from last year, respectively. Even though there are 110 fewer billionaires than a year ago.  Oregon’s Phil Knight moved up the list from 73rd to 52nd. the Northwest’s three Microsoft giants maintain their prominence.

Bill Gates regained his title as the world’s richest man with a worth of $40 billion. Just a few short months before the market started its steep decline Gates stepped down from his day-to-day duties at Microsoft. Along with his wife Melinda, he devoted his riches to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation a humanitarian fund for fighting hunger, improving education and aiding medical research. Despite losing $18 billion dollars in the past 12 months his losses were limed to 20%. The economy may be suffering but his Foundation will not. He has decided to increase his 2009 donations to $3.8 billion, up 15% from 2008.

Microsoft’s other superstar, Paul Allen didn’t fair quite as well. Yet, even after suffering a 65% in value, his $10.5 billion still placed him at 32nd out of the top 50.  After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1983, he left Microsoft and sold much of his stake in the company. Today, Microsoft makes up only 25% of his net worth and those shares. His investment interests are much more eclectic than his Microsoft co-founder, Gates. Allen lost big in 2008 on Charter Communications which expects to file Chapter 11 by April. He also dabbles in odd tech projects, funds research to scan outer space for signs of intelligent alien life and a genetic map of the mouse brain. As a music and sports fanatic he has invested in a rock ‘n roll museum and Hendrix artifacts. He owns the Seattle Sounders Major League Soccer, the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trailblazers.

Topping Allen’s is Microsoft’s third baron, Steve Gallmer, whose accumulated wealth of $11 billion places him as the 30th wealthiest person in the world. He joined his former Harvard classmate Bill Gates in 1980 and took over as the Chief Executive of Microsoft in 2000. Even though he doesn’t carry the star power of Gates or Allen, he yields great power in the financial world. Most notably was his attempt to take over Yahoo! and an attempt to compete with Google on search that featured a nasty Carl Icahn proxy fight. Under his leadership Microsoft’s shares may be sluggish (down 40% from last year), but the company posted a gain in sales of 18% and net profits of 26%. Forbes magazine has listed the company one of the five top trading stocks of the big ten, and one that is likely to make strong gains when the economy makes its turn.

Excerpts taken from “The World’s Billionaires”, by Kroll, Miller and Serafin, Forbes, 3/11/09

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