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Billionaires gaining on Gates: `Forbes'

SURPRISES The magazine's latest list of the world's billionaires showed a wealth boom, with 150 names more than last year, including 10 Spanish and 19 Russian newcomers

AFP , NEW YORK

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is still the richest man in the world, but his lead over other entrepreneurs is narrowing, according to Forbes magazine's list of billionaires published on Thursday.

Despite Gates leading the rich list for a 13th straight year with a tidy nest egg of US$56 billion, US investment guru Warren Buffett's personal fortune climbed to US$52 billion, halving the software mogul's lead.

There were now a record 946 billionaires in the world, up more than 150 from last year, with Forbes attributing the increase to a commodities boom, the march of technology and the relative weakness of the US dollar.

The list's total net worth grew 35 percent from last year to a staggering US$3.5 trillion, with Mexican telecoms mogul Carlos Slim Helu jumping into third place with a massive US$19 billion increase in his net worth.

"This growth in the billionaires list is a mere reflection of a dynamic global economy. More people are better off on this Earth than ever before," said Steve Forbes, the magazine's editor in chief, unveiling the list.

"This boom goes beyond commodities. One of the things that has facilitated this global boom, bringing hundreds of millions of people into the global economy is, of course, technology," he said.

"This is the richest year in human history," he said.

While the 20th annual list was dominated as usual by US businessmen, Russian oligarchs and Asian entrepreneurs -- especially those from India and China -- were increasingly making their presence felt.

Some 36 Indian billionaires led by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal now featured on the list boasting a total wealth of US$191 billion between them, knocking out Japan after two decades as the leading Asian power on the list.

Japanese businessman Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, whose real estate assets once made him the richest man in the world, slid off the list altogether, with Softbank chief Masayoshi Son taking the top Japanese spot with US$5.8 billion.

But even India's dominance would be overturned if China and Hong Kong were lumped together with their total of 41 billionaires, led respectively by Hong Kong property magnate Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠) and China's paper manufacturer Zhang Yin (張茵).

"It was a sizzling year in Asia. Both India and China saw huge gains," said Forbes associate editor Luisa Kroll, who oversaw the report.

"It seems we just can't get away from billionaires," she said.

In Europe, the most excitement came from Russia and Spain, Kroll explained, with 10 new Spanish names on the list and 19 Russian newcomers.

"The Russians are, on average, 46 years old. That's 16 years younger than the average 62-year-old billionaires," she said.

Forbes, however, urged some caution, saying some of the fortunes in the former Soviet Union did not appear sustainable in the long term.

"If there is a fall-off of commodity prices ... does it have the breadth and depth to take up the slack?" he asked of the Russian economy.

Oil kingpin and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich remained the top dog in Russia with US$18.7 billion, with his 52 billionaire countrymen owing their fortunes mainly to oil, steel, mining and metals.

The richest woman on the list was Liliane Bettencourt, 84, of France, the daughter of L'Oreal founder Eugene Schueller, who ranked at number 12 with US$20.7 billion.

While the average age for the richest was 62, the youngest billionaire was a German, Albert von Thurn Und Taxis, only 23 years old, who inherited his wealth that includes 30,000 hectares of woodland. He still lives with his mother and older sisters, in a family castle in Regensburg.

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