Billionaires are blossoming around the globe even though the world economy can't seem to get out of second gear.
The just released 2014 Forbes list found a record 1,645 billionaires worldwide worth a combined $6.4 trillion. That includes 492 U.S. billionaires, 33 of whom call Florida their home.
Behind the United States come China with 152 billionaires and Russia with 111.
Forbes says it found 268 new billionaires even as 100 fell off the list and 16 died. A record 172 women made the list, up from 138 last year. And Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates with $76 billion reclaimed the No. 1 ranking worldwide, replacing Mexico's Carlos Slim Helu who held that title for the past four years.
As shares of Facebook soared last year, so did founder Mark Zuckerberg's fortune — to $28.5 billion from $15.2 billion. He was the year's biggest dollar gainer, but it still was not quite enough to make the top tier.
To be in the Forbes top 20 required a record net worth of $31 billion, up from $23 billion last year. The global wealth snapshot was based on Feb. 12 values.
Carnival Cruise CEO Micky Arison, Florida's richest person, for example, has a net worth of $6.5 billion, up from a reported $5.7 billion one year ago. Arison has dominated Florida's billionaires list since the late 1990s, when Forrest Mars Jr., now worth $20 billion as co-owner of candymaker Mars, relocated from South Florida to Wyoming.
Why care about the super rich? They are an important barometer of the global economy. If billionaires are shrinking in number, we would probably be concerned. The fact that more billionaires are cropping up in less developed parts of the globe also reflects the spread of wealth beyond the usual dozen or so countries that dominate these lists.
And, of course, the Forbes rankings remind us of what can happen to anybody with an innovative idea and the drive to make it real. I am reminded of an interview with Sara Blakely one year ago this month. She grew up in Clearwater, founded Spanx shapewear and built it into an empire, making her the world's youngest self-made female billionaire.
Blakely was not handed her fortune. As she told me in 2013: "I can't help but think of the days when my job was to cold call people in Clearwater to try and sell them fax machines and how many of them said, 'No, no, no.' " Now 43, she is worth $1 billion, the latest ranking says.
The list of global billionaires includes 26 newcomers, including Jan Koum, who co-founded WhatsApp and just sold it to Facebook for an amazing $19 billion. His piece of the fortune is worth $6.8 billion at age 38.
The success of Blakely and Koum resonates with many of the startup entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area.
Nor is it just about lots of money. Bill Gates is only 58 years old and his greatest days of medical philanthropy — empowered by his Microsoft-made fortune — may still be ahead of him.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]