Introduction by Matthew Miller and Luisa Kroll
Carlos Slim Helu takes No. 1 spot on Forbes World's Billionaires list as a record 164 10-figure titans return to the ranking amid the global economic recovery.
For the third time in three years, the world has a new richest man.
Riding surging prices of his various telecom holdings, including giant mobile outfit America Movil (AMX), Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu has beaten out Americans Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to become the wealthiest person on earth and nab the top spot on the 2010 Forbes list of the World's Billionaires.
Slim's fortune has swelled to an estimated $53.5 billion, up $18.5 billion in 12 months. Shares of America Movil, of which Slim owns a $23 billion stake, were up 35% in a year.
That massive hoard of scratch puts him ahead of Microsoft (MSFT) cofounder Bill Gates, who had held the title of world's richest 14 of the past 15 years.
Gates, now worth $53 billion, is ranked second in the world. He is up $13 billion from a year ago as shares of Microsoft rose 50% in 12 months. Gates' holdings in his personal investment vehicle Cascade (CAE) also soared with the rest of the markets.
Buffett's fortune jumped $10 billion to $47 billion on rising shares of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK). He ranks third.
The Oracle of Omaha shrewdly invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs (GS) and $3 billion in General Electric (GE) amid the 2008 market collapse. He also recently acquired railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI) for $26 billion.
In his annual shareholder letter Buffett wrote, "We've put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. When it's raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble."
Many plutocrats did just that. Indeed, last year's wealth wasteland has become a billionaire bonanza. Most of the richest people on the planet have seen their fortunes soar in the past year.
This year the World's Billionaires have an average net worth of $3.5 billion, up $500 million in 12 months. The world has 1,011 10-figure titans, up from 793 a year ago but still shy of the record 1,125 in 2008. Of those billionaires on last year's list, only 12% saw their fortunes decline.
U.S. billionaires still dominate the ranks — but their grip is slipping. Americans account for 40% of the world's billionaires, down from 45% a year ago.
The U.S. commands 38% of the collective $3.6 trillion net worth of the world's richest, down from 44% a year ago.
Of the 97 new members of the list, only 16% are from the U.S. By contrast, Asia made big gains. The region added 104 moguls and now has just 14 fewer than Europe, thanks to several large public offerings and swelling stock markets.
The new billionaires include American Isaac Perlmutter, who flipped Marvel Entertainment (MVL) to Disney (DIS) for $4 billion last December. The Spider-Man mogul netted nearly $900 million in cash and 20 million shares of Disney in the transaction.
Also new to the ranking: 27 billionaires from China, including Li Shufu, whose automaker, Geely, announced plans to buy Swedish brand Volvo from Ford in December. The deal is expected to close in March 2010.
Finland and Pakistan both welcomed their first billionaires.
For the first time China (including Hong Kong) has the most billionaires outside the U.S. with 89.
Russia has 62 billionaires, 28 of them returnees who had fallen off last year's list amid a meltdown in commodities. Total returnees to the list this year: 164.
Eleven countries have at least double the number of billionaires they had a year ago, including China, India, Turkey and South Korea.
Thirty members of last year's list fell out of the billionaire's club. Moguls who couldn't make the cut: Iceland's Thor Bjorgolfsson, Russia's Boris Berezovsky and Saudi Arabia's Maan Al-Sanea.
Another 13 members of last year's list died. Among the deceased: real estate developer Melvin Simon and glass tycoon William Davidson.
The Top 20 Billionaires in the World
1) Carlos Slim Helu
Net Worth: $53.5 billion
• Telecom tycoon who pounced on privatization of Mexico's national telephone company in the 1990s becomes world's richest person for first time after coming in third place last year. Net worth up $18.5 billion in a year.
• Recently received regulatory approval to merge his fixed-line assets into American Movil, Latin America's biggest mobile phone company.
• His construction conglomerate, Impulsora del Desarrollo y el Empleo, builds roads and energy infrastructure.
• Son of a Lebanese immigrant also owns stakes in financial group Inbursa, Bronco Drilling, Independent News & Media, Saks and New York Times Co.
• Newspaper outfit's stock popped in early March on talk he might buy a controlling stake; he denies the rumor.
• Donating $65 million to fund a research project in genomic medicine with American billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.
2) Bill Gates
Net Worth: $53 billion
• Software visionary is now the world's second-richest man. Net worth still up $13 billion in a year as Microsoft shares rose 50% in 12 months, value of investment vehicle Cascade swelled.
• More than 60% of fortune held outside Microsoft; investments include Four Seasons hotels, Televisa, Auto Nation.
• Stepped down from day-to-day duties at Microsoft in 2008 to focus on philanthropy.
• Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated to fighting hunger, improving education in America's high schools, developing vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.