The Forbes 400 regained lost ground in 2010, while most were still smarting from the recession.
It has been a year of reclamation for America's richest. The total worth of the Forbes 400 was up 8% to $1.37 trillion, well out-earning the 1% rise in the S&P over the same period of time. More than half (217) are richer than they were a year ago.
The headline number tells a partial story. Just over one-third of the 400 failed to add to their fortunes or lost ground. Still far above us is the record of $1.57 trillion in total net worth set in 2008.
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But the very top of the list gained, as good friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were up $4 billion and $5 billion, respectively. They, too, are short of their personal highs. Gates, who in March lost his title of world's richest person to Mexico's Carlos Slim, is still America's richest person — for the 17th year in a row.
Las Vegas gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson was the kid, or "comeback adolescent," as he calls himself. "I'm too old to be a kid," he told Forbes. The largest shareholder of Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS - News) is the year's biggest dollar gainer. His casino's shares are up 1,500% since their 2009 low. Adelson is now the 13th richest American, worth $14.7 billion, up $5.7 billion from last year — though nowhere close to his $28 billion net worth in 2007, when he ranked third among Americans.
The biggest gainer in percentage terms is Mark Zuckerberg, who more than tripled his fortune to $6.9 billion. The more conservative private valuation of Facebook is now around $23 billion; illiquid shares in the secondary markets point to an even richer valuation. Two of his cofounders are in the ranks for the first time: Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moskovitz, both classmates of Zuckerberg's at Harvard. Moskovitz, who is eight days younger than Zuckerberg, now has bragging rights as the world's youngest billionaire. The Facebook cofounders are among 16 newcomers on this year's list. Other notables include Dean Metropoulos, whose private equity firm recently bought Pabst Brewing; Terrence Pegula, who sold his Pennsylvania mining outfit to Royal Dutch Shell (Nasdaq: RDSA - News) for $4.7 billion in May; and Elaine Wynn, whose divorce from casino magnate Steve Wynn was finalized in January.
The price of admission to the 400 is back up to the $1 billion mark. Last year it was $950 million, the first time since 2005 it had fallen below 10 figures. The most notable of the 18 returnees is Ford Motor (NYSE: F - News) scion William Ford Sr., who made the cut after a four-year absence as the automobile company's stock hit five-year highs.
Thirty-four people fell from the ranks, a number of whom just barely missed the cut. At least two saw their fortunes unravel. Tamir Sapir, a former taxi driver who built a real estate fortune, owes at least $340 million for nonpayment of loans, his creditors say. He may be suffering from deteriorating mental condition. Hedge fund chief Raj Rajaratnam faces insider trading charges.
Nine of the drop-offs fell off the list permanently. John Kluge passed away this summer. He was America's richest man from 1989 to 1991, before losing the title to Bill Gates. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in July just after his 80th birthday.
Our estimates of public fortunes are a snapshot of wealth on Aug. 25, 2010, the date we locked in net worths and rankings. We have not included dispersed fortunes (as in those of the Du Ponts) when individual net worths are below our minimum. But we do include wealth belonging to a member's immediate relatives if the wealth can ultimately be traced to one living individual; in that case, "& family" indicates that the number shown includes money belonging to more than one person.
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1. Bill Gates
Net Worth: $54 billion
Residence: Medina, Wash.
The software king is not the world's richest man but that's because he is the most generous person on the planet: To date he has cut checks totaling $28 billion. (Even so, Gates is still America's richest person, topping The Forbes 400 for the 17th straight year.) Most of his donations have passed through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which now has a $33 billion endowment, including contributions from his buddy and bridge partner Warren Buffett. The foundation has given money for the prevention of 5 million deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; now it's undertaking the eradication of polio. It is also fighting hunger by helping 400,000 farmers in Asia and Africa with rice varieties that resist cold, flooding and drought, and by giving 100,000 farmers on those two continents access to small-scale and cheap irrigation systems. As the foundation accelerates, Microsoft is stuck in neutral. Gates' stake in the company he cofounded is now worth $16 billion; its stock is flat over the last year, despite the release of a new Windows operating system and heavy investments in online advertising and games. Gates regularly sells shares in the software giant, pouring proceeds into investment outfit Cascade, which accounts for 70% of his wealth. Other investments include trash-collector Republic Services, investment firm Gamco, AutoNation and an inflation-hedging fund.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
2. Warren Buffett
Net Worth: $45 billion
Source: Berkshire Hathaway
Residence: Omaha, Neb.
Along with bridge partner Bill Gates, the Oracle of Omaha is coaxing America's richest to pledge half their fortunes to charity. "You keep making the list, I'll keep milking it." Buffett plans to give away 99% of his wealth to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Buffett children, and it all has to be spent 10 years after he's gone. "Too often a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset I most value, aside from health, is interesting, diverse and long-standing friends." Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway continues its capital stewardship excellence, beating the S&P by 15 percentage points over the past 12 months. Secret to success: emotional stability. "When you come to a conclusion, you have to really not care what other people say." Buffett faked breathing problems when he was 12 so he could move back to Omaha from Washington, D.C., where his father was a freshman congressman. He had read every book about investing in stocks in the Omaha Public Library by the time he was 12. He met value investor Benjamin Graham at Columbia; bought textile firm Berkshire Hathaway 1965, and transformed it into massive holding company: food, insurance, utilities, industrials. Buffett acquired railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe for $26 billion in 2009.