Grim year for Russian utility tsars as tech tycoons boost bank balances and mystery Monaco moguls feature.
The richest people on Earth got richer in 2014, adding US$92 billion ($118 billion) to their collective fortune in the face of falling energy prices and geopolitical turmoil incited by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The net worth of the world's 400 wealthiest billionaires as of yesterday stood at US$4.1 trillion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily ranking system.
The biggest gainer was Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba Group, China's biggest e-commerce company. Ma, a former English teacher who started the Hangzhou-based company in his apartment in 1999, added US$25.1 billion to his fortune, riding a 56 per cent surge in Alibaba's shares since its September initial public offering. Ma, 50, briefly passed Li Ka-shing as Asia's richest person.
"I am nothing but happy when young people from China do well," said Li, 86, via a spokeswoman.
Two of the year's other biggest gainers were Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg of the United States.
Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, added US$13.7 billion to his net worth after the Nebraska-based company soared 28 per cent as the dozens of operating businesses the 84-year-old chairman bought over the past five decades churned out record profit.
Buffett passed Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim on December 5 to become the world's second-richest person. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was up US$9.1 billion during the year. The 59-year-old remains the world's richest person with a US$87.6 billion fortune.
Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, the world's largest social networking company, gained US$10.6 billion as the California-based business rose to a record on December 22. This year Facebook's mobile business has flourished and its acquisition of Instagram in 2012 for US$1 billion has also been paying off: a Citigroup analyst said this month that the photo sharing app is worth US$35 billion.
Zuckerberg's company faced a challenge in Russia, where the blocking of a Facebook page promoting a Russian opposition rally highlighted the challenges the social network faces as Putin cracks down on the internet amid a looming economic downturn. The European Union and the US limited Russian companies' access to financing to punish Putin after he annexed Crimea in March. Russia's troubles have been worsened by the corresponding plunge in the price of oil, a bedrock of the country's economy.
Nobody was hit harder than Vladimir Evtushenkov, 66. Once Russia's 14th richest person, he lost 80 per cent of his wealth, dropping him from the Bloomberg ranking. He was sentenced to house arrest by a Moscow court in September after a money-laundering investigation linked to the US$2.5 billion buy of shares in oil producer OAO Bashneft.
The court also ruled in favour of nationalising his stake in Bashneft, which he controlled through publicly traded AFK Sistema. Evtushenkov's fortune has fallen US$8.1 billion, the most of any Russian in 2014.
Leonid Mikhelson has been the biggest loser in dollar terms among those remaining in the country's 20 richest, dropping US$7.8 billion since the start of the year. The 59-year-old is the chief executive of OAO Novatek, Russia's second-largest natural gas producer, which fell 44 per cent during the year. He has a US$10.1 billion fortune.
Viktor Vekselberg surpassed Alisher Usmanov as Russia's richest person after Usmanov's MegaFon OAO lost almost half its value since June. Vekselberg is worth US$14.1 billion, while Usmanov fell 32 per cent to US$13.8 billion.
One of only a few Russians in the world's 400 richest who gained was aluminium billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who added US$1.6 billion as his Hong Kong-based United Co. Rusal rose 122 per cent. Deripaska increased his fortune to US$8.2 billion and is the 154th richest person.
"The reputation of Russian business in the West has become worse and will continue to get worse," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin adviser during Putin's first term who now consults for Moscow's Institute for National Strategy, a research firm. "That means that the capabilities for Russia's billionaires to run businesses abroad are going to decrease."
Belkovsky says Putin will try to compensate the country's sanctioned businessmen by giving them access to different state resources.
"The competition for resources will increase, as will the redistribution of ownership," he said.
Russian billionaires weren't the only ones to suffer losses. Sheldon Adelson, the gambling mogul who controls Las Vegas Sands, the world's largest casino company, fell US$8.7 billion as the Las Vegas-based company dropped 25 per cent.
Macau's casinos are looking at their first down year in revenue since the market was opened to foreign operators in 2002, after China's President Xi Jinping cracked down on corruption on the mainland and high-rollers shunned the gambling enclave. More than half of the company's 2013 US$13.8 billion in revenue comes from Macau.
Adelson's decline was followed by Jeffrey Bezos, the chairman of Amazon.com. The 50-year-old had US$7.2 billion trimmed from his fortune as the Seattle-based company lost ground in the cloud computing market to competitor Microsoft.
Bezos, whose Blue Origin space company won a contract in November to deploy rockets from Nasa launchpads in Florida, is ranked 21st with a fortune of US$28.7 billion.
New Zealand's richest man, Graeme Hart, ranked 145 on the list at US$8.4 billion, down US$342 million for the year.
China's 10 richest people have added almost US$48 billion this year. After Ma's US$25.1 billion gain, technology entrepreneurs Richard Liu of online retailer JD.com and Robin Li of Baidu added a combined US$8 billion.
The title of Asia's richest person could be challenged by Wang Jianlin, whose Dalian Wanda Group staged an initial public offering of its commercial properties division this month. An IPO for Wanda Cinema Line is planned for early 2015. Wang has a net worth of US$25.3 billion, gaining US$12.8 billion this year.
Alibaba's surge minted at least three new billionaires this year, including Simon Xie, an Alibaba co-founder and the second-biggest shareholder of the finance affiliate that owns Alipay. Xie, 44, owns 9.7 per cent of Zhejiang Ant Small & Micro Financial Services, the parent of Alipay, company filings show.
Bloomberg uncovered 86 new or hidden billionaires who had never appeared on an international wealth ranking. Among them were the six heirs to a US$13 billion Monaco fortune that were unveiled after the family's matriarch, Helene Pastor, was gunned down in a parking lot in Nice, France, in May.
Carlos Pellas became Nicaragua's first billionaire, rebuilding his family sugar mill and parlaying the proceeds into a new bank, BAC-Credomatic, which by 2005 was one of the largest financial institutions in Central America. He sold it to General Electric in a deal completed between 2005 and 2010 for about US$1.7 billion.
His rise to riches was almost interrupted by a violent 1989 plane crash that killed more than 130 people and left his wife with 62 bone fractures.
Other Latin America fortunes that emerged include five billionaires from Brazil - Joesley, Wesley, Valere, Vanessa and Vivianne Batista - who created the world's biggest beef producer after making more than US$17 billion in acquisitions.
Their company, JBS, rode the biggest stock rally on Brazil's Bovespa index this year, jumping 30 per cent.
A surge in real estate and corporate valuations elevated the fortunes of at least five Blackstone Group billionaires. Co-founder and chairman Stephen Schwarzman added US$926 million as the company rose 7.6 per cent. James Tomilson Hill, Blackstone's vice-chairman, became a billionaire. Jonathan Gray, who runs the firm's real estate division, is worth US$1.5 billion.