The richest people on Earth became a bit poorer this year.
The world’s 400 wealthiest individuals shed $19 billion in 2015, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Falling commodities prices and signs of a slower-growing China spooked investors around the world leading to the first annual decline for the daily wealth index since its 2012 debut.
"After three great years, 2015 stock markets worry-wiggled sideways," said billionaire Ken Fisher, the founder of Fisher Investments that manages more than $65 billion. "Fears over an oil glut, soft consumer spending and China breaking like a plate and taking commodities with it saw investors take fright."
Mexican telecommunications mogul Carlos Slim was the biggest decliner on the index at the close of trading in New York on Dec. 28, as his America Movil SAB dropped 25 percent in 2015. The world’s richest person in May 2013, Slim fell to No. 5 this year after losing almost $20 billion as regulators ratcheted up efforts to break apart the business that controls the majority of Mexico’s landlines and mobile phones.
U.S. investor Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest person, lost $11.3 billion as Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had its first negative annual return since 2011. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, the world’s richest person since May 2013, fell by $3 billion during the year.
Gates’s losses and the continued rise of Inditex SA, the world’s largest fashion retailer, lifted Spain’s Amancio Ortega within about $10 billion of the top slot. Ortega, Europe’s richest person since June 2012, leapfrogged Slim and Buffett as he rose $12.1 billion to $73.2 billion.
His 20 percent rise was still $19 billion short of the increase for the year’s top-gainer, Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos. The New Mexico-born billionaire more than doubled his fortune to $59 billion as investors cheered profits at the world’s largest online retailer. Bezos added $31 billion in 2015, undoing the $7.4 billion decline he had in 2014 and propelling him up 16 positions to No. 4 on the index.
The shifts at the top came as global stock markets swung from early-year increases to sharp declines in the later months, with the MSCI ACWI Index falling 3.8 percent by the end of trading on Dec. 28.
The world’s 400 richest people control a combined $3.9 trillion, according to the index, more than the GDP of every country on Earth except for the U.S., China and Japan. At their peak on May 18, the billionaires had almost $4.3 trillion, a $267 billion increase from Jan. 1. In August they lost those gains and more when a global sell off claimed as much as $182 billion in a week.
Bezos and Ortega dominated the upside of the year’s gyrations, adding $43 billion between them. The performance of the two billionaires contrasted with the family that owns about half of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer. The five members of the Walton family lost a combined $35 billion in 2015.
The market declines knocked 49 billionaires off the daily ranking this year, including Glencore Plc. chief executive Ivan Glasenberg and Wang Jing, a Chinese telecom entrepreneur who personally invested $500 million to help Nicaragua build an alternative to the Panama Canal. Glasenberg lost two-thirds of his fortune as he raced to slash debt at the Swiss commodities company and Wang fell by about 86 percent this year.
Brazilian banking billionaire Andre Esteves, former head of Latin America’s largest independent investment bank who was last ranked by the index in 2014, fell even further this year when his fortune declined by $1.5 billion. Esteves was hauled off to jail by police in November for allegedly trying to interfere in a corruption investigation.
After his arrest, he stepped down as Banco BTG Pactual SA’s chairman and CEO and the stock plunged by almost half. His fortune, which peaked at $4.9 billion in September 2014, ended the year at $1.8 billion. His lawyers said in December that the billionaire was arrested solely because he’s rich. He was released after the country’s supreme court ended the imprisonment after three weeks and remains under house arrest.
Esteves is the latest to fall in the biggest corruption investigation in Brazil’s history as the government cracks down on graft among the country’s economic elite. The probe, along with a political crisis, a currency rout and a recession took its toll, leaving only four of the 11 Brazil-based fortunes on the index with gains in 2015.
Jorge Paulo Lemann, the co-founder of New York-based buyout firm 3G Capital and Brazil’s richest person, led the gains with a $2.2 billion jump. His partners Marcel Telles and Carlos Sicupira increased their fortunes by about $1.7 billion combined, as 3G joined forces with Warren Buffett to merge Kraft Foods Group with H.J. Heinz. The three billionaires are also key shareholders in Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, the beer giant that agreed to buy to acquire SABMiller Plc in a $110 billion deal.
China’s billionaires had the wildest ride in 2015. On Jan. 1, there were 23 Chinese billionaires on the index with a combined net worth of $205 billion. At their May 27 peak there were 31 with a combined $348 billion. On Dec. 28 there were 28 billionaires with $256 billion.
As markets there surged, China became a veritable billionaire factory, with more than 50 new billionaires minted in the first half of the year. By July, the bubble had burst. Out of the 50 billionaires created in the first half of the year, only 19 remained billionaires in August.
Russia’s wealthiest continued to experience their own tumult. The country’s richest people lost $55 billion in 2014 after the West imposed sanctions in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of eastern Ukraine.
This year, plunging oil prices and the enduring chill of sanctions contributed to the country’s first economic contraction in six years. There were 19 Russians on the 400 on Dec. 28 who lost $8 billion during the year. The group was on track to claw back their 2014 losses until June, when the price of oil -- Russia’s biggest export -- began to dive.
Technology was the best-performing industry for billionaires in 2015. The 44 technology billionaires added $81 billion to their total net worth, led by Bezos’s $31 billion rise. Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg became $12 billion wealthier as the social network embarked on a renewed mobile advertising push and its vast audience grew even bigger. Strong ad sales also boosted the fortunes of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the co-founders of Google parent, Alphabet Inc. They gained a combined $20 billion.
The 31 metals, mining and energy billionaires on the index were hit hard as a collapse in prices for oil copper, iron ore and other natural resources shaved $32 billion from their fortunes. Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, lost more than a quarter of her wealth as iron ore plunged by almost half. Rinehart started shipping iron ore from her $10 billion Roy Hill mine this month, boosting global supply which some analysts say could contribute to a further slide in price. She’s the world’s 10th-richest woman with almost $10 billion.
In Nigeria, where tumbling oil prices caused slower growth and the Nigerian Stock Exchange All Share Index dropped 22 percent, Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, suffered his second-straight year of losses. The owner of the continent’s biggest cement producer, Dangote now has $14 billion, about half what he had at his peak in January 2014.
The billionaires cited either declined to comment or didn’t respond to calls and e-mails requesting comment.
The Bloomberg index uncovered 115 new or little-known billionaires in 2015. In November, Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton lost her title as America’s second richest woman after recently-unsealed court documents revealed that her late husband, John T. Walton, gave a third of his Wal-Mart shares to their son, Lukas. At 29, he’s the 92nd-richest person in the world with $11 billion.
Elsewhere in the U.S., the rise of dominant investment banks, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. made billionaires of their respective chairmen, Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, both of them rare instances of hired managers accumulating extraordinary wealth. The October initial public offering of iconic supercar-maker Ferrari NV cemented the billion-dollar fortune of second-generation heir, Piero Ferrari.
In Hong Kong, Yeung Kin-man has amassed a $10 billion net worth through Biel Crystal Manufactory, one of the biggest makers of glass covers for iPhones and other smartphones. Yeung’s rise came on the heels of the March initial public offering for Biel competitor Lens Technology Co. Ltd. that made Zhou Qunfei China’s richest woman. Zhou’s fortune increased more than $5 billion to $7.9 billion this year, a rise of 254 percent, the largest on the index.
As turbulent as 2015 may have been, 2016 may be even more so, according to Larry Adam, chief investment officer for Wealth Management Americas at Deutsche Bank AG.
"We’re going to see a lot more volatility than we’ve seen over the past couple of years,"said Adam, who sees emerging-market currencies and uncertainty around the U.S. election among the major market risks. "Much more muted performance and much more volatility. Caution is warranted."
© Copyright 2016 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.