It all started in 1987. The wealth team in Forbes undertook a project that would set the stage for what is to become the annual wealth ranking we are so familiar with today: the Forbes Billionaires List. In the days before Google and the internet, wealth reporters scoured the globe, making phone calls, traveling to foreign countries and reading through documents to uncover and pinpoint fortunes.
The year 1987 was a very different era from today. Japan was at the height of its economic bubble, and the mighty Japan Inc. pretty much annihilated the overseas market share of American and European companies. Its economy was so powerful that the world seem revolved around Japan and immigrants from Latin America changed their names to Japanese-sounding in hope to obtain easier immigration permits.
At this time, Microsoft founder Bill Gates was already a billionaire, but he was worth a paltry $1.25 billion. Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, on the other hand, had $2.1 billion. They were no match for the Japanese tycoons you are about to see below. It was a time when Japanese investors were buying up the world, and analysts were busy predicting that Japan would overtake the United States in 2010 to become the world’s largest economy.
When Forbes published its first world richest list back in 1987, the following people made up the top 10.
Japan’s good fortunes however, did not last long. The overtaking of America never happen, and its economy crashed in early 1990s, resulting in a period of stagnation and deflation which last until present day. After four years on top, Tsutsumi lost his throne as the world’s richest man in 1991 to Mori, who held on the title until his death in January 1993. This marked the end of Japanese crown on top of Forbes list. From 1993 to 1997, Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei battled to be the king of wealth.
Prior to the Asian financial crisis, the Sultan of Brunei was the world’s wealthiest man in 1997 with a net worth of $38 billion, followed by Bill Gates $36.8 billion. Interestingly, Tsutsumi had fallen to no.8 at this time, and there were only 3 Japanese billionaires left in the top 50, a reflection of how far Japan had declined. The Sultan lost $14 billion in the Asian crisis 97-98 and his country plunged into a long economic stagnation which last till today. By 1998, the wildly successful Windows 98 catapulted Bill Gates to top Forbes with a wealth of $51 billion.
Bill Gates remained as the world’s richest man until 2009. In 2010, Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim Helu topped the list. From 1987 to 2013, the wealth landscape experienced a vast shift. The above list revealed that 6 out 10 were Japanese when Forbes published it for the first time in 1987… with none from the U.S., by 2013, 5 out of the 10 were Americans… with none from China.