NEW YORK - The world now has a record 793 billionaires, up 15 per cent from a year ago, with a rising number in India, Russia, Brazil and the Middle East - as well as more women, Forbes magazine says.

Soaring stock, oil and commodities prices increased their combined net worth to US$2.6 trillion ($4.03 trillion) as 114 individuals joined the exclusive club including 10 more women for a total of 78.

"A billion just isn't what it used to be," said Forbes associate editor Luisa Kroll yesterday.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates topped the list for a record 12th year in a row with a net worth estimated at US$50 billion, followed by perennial No 2 Warren Buffett, the famed investor of Berkshire Hathaway, worth US$42 billion.

Mexican industrialist Carlos Slim moved into the No 3 spot at US$30 billion, just ahead of Sweden's Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad, at US$28 billion. India's Lakshmi Mittal, 55, chairman of Mittal Steel, fell to fifth from third, at US$23.5 billion.

Among the rest of the top 10, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, 53, moved up one spot to sixth, with a net worth of US$22 billion. France's Bernard Arnault, 57, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury-goods maker, vaulted to seventh place from 17th, with a US$21.5 billion net worth.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, 49, fell to eighth place from fifth, as his fortune dipped to US$20 billion from US$23.7 billion last year.

Toronto-based Kenneth Thomson, 82, and his family, whose Thomson Corp owns the Westlaw legal research and First Call stock-market data service, rose to ninth from 15th, with US$19.6 billion. Hong Kong investor and Hutchison Whampoa chief Li Ka-shing, 77, rose to 10th, from 22nd, with US$18.8 billion.

Calculations were based on asset prices and exchange rates as of February 13.

"Why is this list growing? The global economy has been growing in the last two years at rates not seen since World War II, fuelled by a commodities boom with a whiff of inflation," said Forbes chief executive and editor-in-chief Steve Forbes.

The list is a source of great speculation and criticism each year, with some of those named laughing off the estimates of their net worth as wildly low or high.

Kroll noted the difficulty of the task since many billionaires refuse to co-operate, but defended the information, gathered by 30 reporters in seven countries, as unrivalled.

"Some people show us their spreadsheets showing the positive side of their business, so we have to ask what motivates them. Are they going to sell a business?" Kroll said.

"Others are about to divorce and want to appear as being worth less.

"We always try to be on the more conservative side."

India added 10 names to the list for a total of 23, but only three of them were based on software or technology. Their combined net worth of US$99 billion passed the net worth of Japan's 27 billionaires, estimated at US$67 billion, for the largest concentration in Asia.

Russia added seven new members to the list for a total of 33, based largely on oil and gas prices, and that list's net worth grew to US$172 billion, up from US$91 billion.

"Russia continues to astound us," Kroll said.

One Russian oil tycoon who fell off the list was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos chief executive imprisoned in Siberia for fraud and tax evasion.

"We figure he still has somewhere below US$500 million," Kroll said.

Brazil doubled its number of billionaires to 16 with the help of some huge public offerings.

In the Middle East and Africa, including Turkey, there were 56 billionaires, up from 29 last year, with a combined worth of US$167 billion, up from US$103 billion a year ago.

Turkey added eight new people to the list for a total of 21, based largely on telecommunications, media and banking.

Great concentration of wealth occurred in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, whose 11 billionaires were worth US$68 billion compared with US$42 billion for its seven billionaires a year ago.

The Middle East also produced the overall list's youngest billionaire, Hind Hariri, 22, who inherited US$1.4 billion from her slain father, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. She is eight months older than Prince Albert von Thurn und Taxis of Germany.

But the United States has the most billionaires, 371, followed by Germany at 55. New York is home to the most with 40, followed by Moscow, at 25, and London, with 23.

Of the 793 billionaires on the list, 452 are described as self-made, meaning they didn't inherit their money.

Chandlers to fore

They may have the fourth-largest fortune among Australasians, but low-profile New Zealand brothers Richard and Christopher Chandler make it to 382nd on a list of worldwide billionaires.

Their placing in Forbes magazine's Top 10 rich list for Australia and New Zealand, which was released this year, was based on a net worth of US$2 billion ($3.13 billion).

Now they have turned up on the same publication's 12th annual list of billionaires, sharing a spot with 28 others.

The only other New Zealander on either list was Graeme Hart, who controls the Burns Philp food group. He was fifth on the Australia and New Zealand list and 451st in the world rankings with US$1.7 billion.

Wealthiest Australian James Packer, who inherited a majority holding in Publishing & Broadcasting, was 114th on the worldwide list with US$5 billion.

Forbes List of the World's 15 Richest People

Rank, Name, Country, Net worth (US$bn) Source

1. William Gates, US$50bn Microsoft

2. Warren Buffett US$42bn Berkshire Hathaway

3. Carlos Slim Helu Mexico US$30bn telecom

4. Ingvar Kamprad Sweden US$28bn Ikea

5. Lakshmi Mittal India US$23.5bn steel

6. Paul Allen US$22bn Microsoft, investments

7. Bernard Arnault France US$21.5 LVMH

8. P. Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud Saudi Arabia US$20bn investments

9. Kenneth Thomson & familyCanada US$19.6bn publishing

10. Li Ka-shing Hong Kong $18.8bn diversified

11. Roman Abramovich Russia $18.2bn oil

12. Michael Dell US$17.1bn Dell

13. Karl Albrecht Germany US$17bn supermarkets

14. Sheldon Adelson US$16.1bn casinos, hotels

15. Liliane Bettencourt France US$16bn L'Oreal - additional reporting by Bloomberg