When the 0.00001 Percent Sneeze

Published in Foreign Policy

October 7, 2015

Since March, when Forbes showcased its World's Billionaires list for 2015, global stock markets have fallen sharply and a number of countries have seen their currencies plummet against the dollar. This has created havoc for the emerging-market super rich, who have lost billions of dollars in wealth. I have calculated that the wealth of the Forbes billionaires has dropped 8 percent over the last six months, in part because nearly 150 individuals are now absent their tenth digit, falling off the Forbes billionaires list altogether. Losses in emerging markets are more than double those in the advanced countries.

The super rich in Latin America have been hit the hardest, losing more than 20 percent of their wealth since March. The decline has been led by Brazil, where billionaires' wealth has dropped 30 percent, with more than one-third of the ranks from earlier this year falling below the billion-dollar threshold. Of the other large emerging markets, only Turkey experienced similar losses in recent months—down 11 billionaires as the Turkish lira sank 25 percent this year against the dollar. To put these drops in perspective, war-torn Ukraine recorded similar declines in the net worth of local billionaires as its crisis unfolded and businesses suffered.

The current market turmoil hurts billionaire entrepreneurs, their superstar firms, and the many workers whom they employ.

Antonio Luiz Seabra is one of Brazil's fallen billionaires. His net worth was estimated at $1.4 billion earlier this year. As of today, he no longer makes the billion-dollar threshold for the Forbes list. His innovative cosmetics company, Natura, which is now trading at one-third of its peak, is the reason. Natura has lost more than twice as much as the broader Bovespa stock index this year, as demand for luxury cosmetics recoils. Sergio Lins Andrade, of the now notorious Andrade Gutierrez group, which is caught up in the Petrobras scandal, fared somewhat better. Beginning the year with a fortune similar to Seabra's, he is still worth $1.1 billion.

The sector that has been hit the hardest is resources. The net worth of resource billionaires has dropped by double digits in both advanced countries and emerging markets. It is perhaps satisfying to watch oil moguls lose after years of watching them ride the commodity price wave, benefiting from political connections or privatizations. Consider Russia's Vagit Alekperov—who was appointed deputy minister of oil and gas in 1990 and then catapulted into the lead position of Russia's largest private oil company, Lukoil. Alekperov's fortune fell from $13.6 billion last year to below $10 billion now. Most other sectors have seen billionaire wealth drop by around 8 percent.

One exception is the tech industry, where the super rich have been more resilient, with some even continuing to watch their fortunes grow. According to the Forbes list, the fortunes of Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg expanded the most over the last six months. Bezos's net worth was $35 billion when the 2015 list was first released; it's now $47 billion. His company, Amazon, has grown to be the world's largest retailer (measured by market value), surpassing even Walmart. And tech riches are not limited to the United States; Zhou Qunfei of China became the world's richest self-made woman this year, when her growing touch-screen firm, Lens Technology, went public. Frank Wang, also of China, became the first drone billionaire. Both entrepreneurs succeeded in spite of a stock market collapse and the depreciation of the renminbi.

I know it's hard to shed a tear, but the overall decline in wealth of billionaires is a distinctly unhealthy sign, sure to be associated with income-growth slowdown and significant job losses. Over the last 10 to 15 years, growth in emerging-market billionaire wealth has far outpaced growth in advanced countries. The source of this wealth has increasingly been large-scale entrepreneurship. In 2014, 27 percent of emerging-market billionaires were founders of new companies (not in finance and not politically connected). This was a sharp increase from 13 percent in 2001. These are not the wealthy, entitled scions of elite families, but the people who create globally competitive blockbuster firms and good jobs in their regions. And their disappearance should be a global concern.

Zhou and Wang were not just the only new billionaires in China—they were the only new billionaires from emerging markets since March. The fortunes of so many of the 2014 billionaires dipped below the billion-dollar threshold that, overall, there was a 12 percent decline in the total number of billionaires in emerging markets. In contrast, over the last decade, the number of emerging-market billionaires has grown steadily, by more than 20 percent on average each year. These new super rich have built incredible companies like Tee Yih Jia Food Manufacturing, the Singaporean-based company that sells the most spring roll wraps in the world, and Sun Pharma, a $27 billion pharmaceutical company in India.

The current market turmoil hurts billionaire entrepreneurs, their superstar firms, and the many workers whom they employ. In Brazil, both Petrobras and Natura have announced large layoffs, as has billionaire Jorge Gerdau Johannpeter's Gerdau, the largest steelmaker in Latin America. In India, there have been mass layoffs in the IT sector, including at Infosys, cofounded by billionaire Narayana Murthy, and at Tata Consultancy Services, associated with the super rich Tata family. In China, large layoffs have so far been limited to the big state-owned companies, like Heilongjiang Longmay Mining Group, but rumors of layoffs at Foxconn and Huawei have circulated.

The rise of the emerging-market billionaire industrialist over the last decade has been a sign of development. Big companies that employ tens of thousands of workers and export around the world help countries grow. It is no coincidence that China's remarkable GDP growth has been accompanied by both the fastest growth in billionaires in the world and the sharpest reduction in poverty of the emerging markets. Large-scale entrepreneurship is necessary for development because the most productive firms are ultimately the ones that drive growth.

For this reason, it is informative to highlight the countries and industries where new fortunes are still being created despite a tough global economy. On that front, China and technology remain in the lead.

This article draws from the author's forthcoming book, Rich People Poor Countries: The Rise of Emerging-Market Tycoons and their Mega Firms.