Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Billionaires

Forbes Magazine reports fewer billionaires on its annual list of the richest people in the world, and smaller fortunes among most of the survivors.

Before you cry sarcastic tears or give way to genuine worry that this pool of potential benefactors has lost its ability to trickle down upon us, consider two things.

1. If they truly lost solid wealth based on genuine assets, that means someone else gained it. Find and follow the money trail to find out who has benefited.

2. If this is just shrinkage of perceived value, they never really had it to begin with.

Perceived value drives much of so-called wealth creation. In truth, there is no wealth creation. It's wealth fabrication. Perceived value drives the stock market up and down far more than real disruptions in the flow of actual resources do.

In times of trouble, many traded assets may change hands below their actual value. But some simply stand revealed as having little or no value. A smart money manipulator, seeing that people are paying ridiculous sums for fairy dust, might trade in fairy dust a little. An honest one won't extol the virtues of fairy dust, but simply ride the wave of other people's interest for a while. It is always easier to exploit people's folly than prevent it.

The shrinkage of perceived value is the scariest part of any economic downturn. That's the money that simply disappears. In the case of solid assets temporarily undervalued, it will return. If it was fairy dust, it has simply turned to actual dust and blown away.

The poor billionaires will weather this, if they have lived within their means. It's the same as with any of us, only with more houses, more cars, bigger boats and perhaps an oil company or two.

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