The economy is improving for the super rich. After two years of declines, the total net worth of America’s richest people rose 10 percent to $955 billion this year from 2002, according to Forbes magazine’s annual ranking of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals.
Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, who remained in the top spot, personified the trend toward increasing wealth. His fortune increased by $3 billion to $46 billion this year. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen held third place, with his net worth rising $1 billion to $22 billion. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
Investor Warren Buffett kept the No. 2 position although his wealth was unchanged at $36 billion.
Forbes said the surge in collective net worth was largely due to gains in Internet stocks and tech fortunes. For example, Amazon.Com’s Jeff Bezos saw his fortune expand by more than $3 billion to $5.1 billion as the stock of the online retailer skyrocketed. Bezos was the top gainer on the list, and holds spot 32.
David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo!, saw his net worth nearly triple to $1.6 billion, tying him with 13 others for the 126th spot. Yahoo!’s other co-founder, Jerry Yang, also nearly tripled his fortune, but he shared the 162nd spot on the list with 16 others with a $1.4 billion fortune.
The gains are part of a continuing shift in wealth from the East to the tech-centric West. When the list was first published in 1982, there were 81 members from New York and 56 from California. Today, California boasts 95 Forbes 400 members, while New York has 47.
“There’s been this enormous shift in the geographic distribution of wealth,” Forbes senior editor Peter Newcomb said.
Newcomb said the migration of high-tech businesses and their founders to the West is a factor in this change, but he also noted that many wealthy East Coast families such as the du Ponts and Rockefellers have been passing on their fortunes to members of younger generation.
The Walton family was again prominent on the list. Five members of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s family tied for the fourth spot, each with a net worth of $20.5 billion.
Rounding out the top 10 were Oracle Corp. chairman Larry Ellison with an $18 billion fortune and Dell Inc. CEO Michael Dell with a net worth of $13 billion.
Dell replaced Microsoft executive Steven Ballmer in 10th place. Ballmer is now No. 11 with a nest egg of $12.2 billion.
Notable drop-offs from the list include Global Crossing Ltd. founder Gary Winnick, whose company is in bankruptcy, and Motorola Corp. CEO Robert Galvin, whose company is suffering from the malaise afflicting the wireless and chip-making industry.
Thirty-one year old Daniel Ziff is the youngest person on the list. He inherited his $1.2 billion fortune. His father William Ziff Jr., built and sold a publishing empire.
The oldest person on the list is 95-year old Max Fisher, who made his $680 million fortune through investments.
Newcomb said Forbes compiled its list by estimating the value of stock and other assets held by the wealthiest Americans. Forbes used the stock prices of publicly held companies as of the end of August; for privately held companies, the magazine estimated a fair market value based on the stocks of their publicly traded peers. Real estate and other assets were also included.
Where exact prices were not known, “we try to determine what a prudent shopper would pay for something,” Newcomb said. “We try to be conservative with the estimates.”