NEW YORK – While many of the world’s richest people saw their fortunes shrink again in the last year, Oprah Winfrey’s grew enough to put her on Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires — the first black woman to join the ranks.
Bill Gates leads the list for the ninth straight year, but the Microsoft co-founder’s net worth fell 23 percent from a year ago to $40.7 billion. Investment guru Warren Buffett remained in second place with $30.5 billion, a 13 percent drop from last year.
Gates’ personal wealth, much of it in company stock, has diminished by 60 percent since April 1998, when it briefly reached $100 billion. His worst year was 1999, when it plunged by a third as the government pursued an antitrust case against Microsoft. Forbes notes he is also the world’s biggest giver, donating $1 billion annually to charity, largely to vaccine research.
Meanwhile, Oprah’s media empire grew steadily stronger, and she made the list this year with a net worth of $1 billion. Her debut comes just two years after Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson became the first black billionaire.
Membership in the exclusive club fell by 21 this year to 476, the third year of declines since the economy weakened and stock markets started falling. The group’s combined wealth also fell to $1.4 trillion from $1.54 trillion last year.
“You see the poor economies wreaking havoc on their finances like everyone else. They’re not immune,” said Louisa Kroll, who edited Forbes’ March billionaires issue, which hits newsstands Friday.
The 222 Americans on the list hold 47 percent of the group’s wealth. But U.S. billionaires collectively lost $98 billion last year. Of the 67 billionaires who left the list, there were 30 Americans, including media mogul Barry Diller, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Sid Bass, a member of one of Texas’s wealthiest families.
Four of last year’s billionaires were wiped out entirely — Swiss shareholder activist Martin Ebner, German media tycoon Leo Kirch, Brazilian television mogul Roberto Marinho and Turkish banker Mehmet Karamehmet.
A fifth, Swiss businessman Klaus J. Jacobs, gave it all away. Another whose net worth plummeted was Canadian cable magnate Andre Chagnon, who donated nearly his entire fortune to help fight disease and obesity among children.
Germany’s 43 billionaires are led by retailers Theo and Karl Albrecht, who remained comfortably in third place with a combined net worth of $25.6 billion, down from $26.8 billion last year.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen held fourth place with a net worth of $20.1 billion, down from $25.2 billion. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, Citigroup’s largest individual investor, moved up to the fifth spot with a $17.7 billion fortune. He edged out software mogul Lawrence Ellison and five members of the Walton family, who rounded out the top ten.
Other newsmakers on the list include Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim Helu, who is pumping millions into an effort to rejuvenate Mexico City and has hired Rudolph Giuliani to help solve its crime problem; Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Europe has 134 billionaires, up from 121 last year. Russia has 10 new billionaires, thanks to higher oil prices, a 38 percent rise in stocks and a trend toward corporate transparency that has made it easier to identify the wealthiest Russians. Three years ago there were no Russians listed; now there are 17.
The economic pain has been acute in Asia, where the number of billionaires fell to 61, down 50 percent from the peak in 1996.
Few fortunes are made in a hurry. The average age on the list is 64, but there are 25 billionaires under 40. The richest remains computer company founder Michael Dell, 38, who fell six places to 24, with a net worth of $9.8 billion.
The youngest is Germany’s Albert von Thurn und Taxis, who inherited his $1.5 billion portion of one of the world’s oldest fortunes when he turned 18 last year. He is 19 now.
The 37 women on the list were led by Alice Walton and her mother Helen Walton, whose equal $16.5 billion portions of the Wal-Mart fortune landed them in 7th place. Oprah is the third self-made woman to ever make the list. The others are Doris Fisher of the Gap, who remains on the list, and Martha Stewart, who was on in 2000 and then lost her position.