After a volatile 2016, the world's richest people ended the year worth an average 5.7 per cent more than at its start

In a year when populist voters reshaped power and politics across Europe and the United States, the world's wealthiest people are ending 2016 with $237 billion (NZ$340 billion) more than they had at the start.

Triggered by disappointing economic data from China at the beginning, Britaiu's vote to leave the European Union in the middle and the election of billionaire Donald Trump at the end, the net worth of the world's billionaires whipsawed constantly with a more than US$600 billion difference between the year's high and low. Over the year, though, their worth rose 5.7 per cent to US$4.4 trillion by the close of trading December 27, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"In general, clients rode through the volatility," said Simon Smiles, chief investment officer for ultra-high-net-worth clients at UBS Wealth Management, "2016 ended up being a spectacular year for risk assets.

"Pretty remarkable given the start of the year."

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The gains were led by Warren Buffett, who added US$11.8 billion during the year as his investment firm Berkshire Hathaway saw its airline and banking holdings soar after Trump's surprise victory on November 8.

Buffett, who has pledged to give away most of his fortune to charity, donated Berkshire Hathaway stock valued at US$2.6 billion in July.

The US investor reclaimed his spot as the world's second-richest person two days after Trump's victory ignited a year-end rally that pushed Buffett's wealth up 19 per cent for the year to $74.1 billion.

"2016's been event-driven with global news driving prices rather than fundamentals," said Michael Cole, president of Ascent Private Capital Management, which administers about $10 billion in assets. "The belief that Trump is going to come in and deregulate big parts of the economy is driving the markets right now."

The individual gains for the year were dominated by Americans, who had four of the five biggest increases on the index, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the world's richest person with US$91.5 billion, and oil magnate Harold Hamm.

The country's richest were largely opposed to a Trump presidency during the election, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who said in May that stocks could fall as much as 20 per cent if Trump were to win.

US billionaires -- including Buffett -- favoured Trump's rival Hillary Clinton. Still, they profited from his victory when they added US$77 billion to their fortunes in the post-election rally fuelled by expectations that regulations would ease.

The New York real estate mogul is building a cabinet heavy on wealth and corporate connections, and light on government experience, a mix that hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio said last week would unleash the "animal spirits" of capitalism and drive markets even higher.

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Dalio is the world's 63rd-richest person with US$14.1 billion.

Investors and executives welcomed Trump's picks, including billionaire Wilbur Ross to lead the Department of Commerce and former Goldman Sachs Group executive Steven Mnuchin as his Treasury secretary, who have a combined net worth of at least US$5.6 billion, according to the index.

"You know, I was not opposing Trump as much as most people," Saudi Arabian billionaire Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber said after his election. "He's capable and -- as a businessman -- he's shrewd about the bottom line. The people he's surrounding himself with have baggage but they're also successful and shrewd."

Warren Buffett is the second-richest man in the world. Photo / File
Warren Buffett is the second-richest man in the world. Photo / File

France's Bernard Arnault was the sole non-American among the five best performers, adding US$7.1 billion to take his fortune to US$38.9 billion. His company, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said the Chinese luxury-goods market was improving.

Gates remained the world's richest person throughout the year. Amancio Ortega, Europe's richest person and founder of the Zara clothing chain, was in second place for most of 2016, until he ceded it to Buffett in November. Ortega, who dropped US$1.7 billion in 2016, is the world's third richest person with US$71.2 billion.

Wildcatter Hamm's fortune was propelled by a strengthening oil price and expectations a Trump administration will slash fossil-fuel regulations. Hamm added US$8.4 billion to more than double his fortune to US$15.3 billion. He led the 49 energy, metals and mining billionaires, the best-performing category, adding US$80 billion and reversing the US$32 billion fall they had in 2015.

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch each dropped US$2 billion after Koch Industries reported on its website that annual revenue was now estimated at US$15 billion below its earlier estimate of up to US$115 billion.

Technology fortunes were the second-best performing on the ranking, with the 55 tech billionaires adding US$50 billion to their fortunes over the year, despite worries a Trump presidency might introduce policies that could hurt them.

"We'll have to see what the policies of the administration are," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said this month.

2016's been event-driven year with global news driving prices rather than fundamentals.

"I certainly hope they will be pro science, pro technology and all the things this world has really benefited from."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who doubled his fortune to US$60 billion in 2015, led gains among technology executives again this year, adding US$7.5 billion in 2016 on robust sales growth at the online retailer. He was followed by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who added US$5.4 billion.

Some of the industry's biggest relative gains went to the founders of the world's leading startups, such as Uber Technologies's Travis Kalanick and Snap's Evan Spiegel.

The so-called "unicorn" billionaires, which include Spotify co-founder Martin Lorentzon, who was identified as a billionaire for the first time in 2016, secured a series of mammoth funding rounds while moving closer to testing their fortunes on the public markets.

Other billionaires uncovered by the Bloomberg index in 2016 included the father and son behind Jose Cuervo tequila, New York real estate developer Axel Stawski and Kosovo construction tycoon Behgjet Pacolli.

The index also unveiled 11 surviving family members of reclusive Thai entrepreneur Chaleo Yoovidhya, the inventor of Red Bull, whose heirs share a combined US$22 billion, the world's largest energy-drink fortune.

Three billionaires emerged in Argentina, including the country's first tech billionaire, Marcos Galperin, as markets rose on enthusiasm for President Mauricio Macri's finance-friendly economic policies.

Amancio Ortega is worth US71.2 billion. Photo / Getty Images
Amancio Ortega is worth US71.2 billion. Photo / Getty Images

Most fortunes outside of the United States didn't get the same boost from Trump's victory, and were hurt by fluctuating commodity prices and the rise of the dollar, the currency used for the Bloomberg ranking.

Nine of the 10 biggest decliners in 2016 were from outside the US, led by China's second-richest person, Wang Jianlin, who lost US$5.8 billion. Wang ended the year as the world's 21st-richest person with US$30.6 billion.

Nigeria's Aliko Dangote, the richest person in Africa, lost US$4.9 billion or one-third of his wealth as the combined effect of falling oil prices and the June devaluation of the naira pushed him to No112 with US$10.4 billion. Dangote was the world's 46th-richest person in June.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud fell US$4.9 billion, a 20 per cent drop. Alwaleed said last month all of his stakes in public companies including Citigroup were potentially for sale, reversing a longstanding policy that some of his most prized shareholdings were "forever".

Wealth creation in China turned negative for the first time since the inception of the Bloomberg index five years ago, with the country's richest losing US$11 billion in 2016 amid a slump in the Shanghai Shenzhen CSI 300 index and a 7 per cent decline for the yuan against the dollar.

I don't think family offices are overly concerned or getting too nervous, but after Brexit and Trump they've resigned themselves to market volatility.

Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma closed the year with US$33.3 billion, adding US$3.6 billion in 2016. He dropped in and out of his place as Asia's richest person for the first four months of the year before claiming it for good in May after Alibaba's finance affiliate, which is laying the groundwork for an initial public offering expected as soon as next year, completed a record US$4.5 billion equity fundraising round.

China has 31 billionaires on the index with US$262 billion, trailing the US, which has 179 billionaires who control US$1.9 trillion, and Germany, whose 39 individuals have US$281 billion.

Russian billionaires began to put the negative effects of US and European sanctions behind them, reversing the combined US$63 billion declines for 2014 and 2015 and adding US$49 billion in 2016.

Wealth managers for the world's richest are girding themselves for frenetic start to 2017.

"Expect the unexpected," said Sabine Kaiser, founder of SKadvisory, which advises family offices on venture capital and private equity. "I don't think family offices are overly concerned or getting too nervous, but after Brexit and Trump they've resigned themselves to market volatility."

The wealthiest

Bill Gates - US$91.5 billion

Warren Buffett - US$74.1 billion

Amancio Ortega - US$71.2 billion