By Ruchir Sharma
After nearly two decades of investing in emerging markets, much of it traveling from the gritty alleys of Bihar to the rooftop helipads of Sao Paulo in search of opportunity, I’ve developed an unusual rule of the road: watch the changes in the list of top billionaires, learn how they made their billions, and note how many billions they made. Changes in the list, and the size and source of the fortunes, can provide a quick indicator of how well positioned emerging nations are to compete in the global economy.
If a country is generating too many billionaires relative to the size of its economy, this concentration of wealth can lead to stagnation.Take China. A healthy economy produces great wealth in a competitive environment, and by that measure China, for example, is still strikingly healthy. Turnover among its top 10 billionaires is high, and few have ever amassed a fortune of more than $10 billion; indeed there is reason to believe Beijing is enforcing an unwritten rule that caps total wealth. In the last fifteen years China has generated much more overall wealth than any other country, but its richest man is now worth about $10 billion, far less than the billionaires in much smaller economies, including India, Mexico, Russia and Nigeria.
It is also telling that two men who in the last decade held the title of richest man in China are now in jail on corruption charges of one kind or another. That is not to say that the charges were baseless, only that in China’s freewheeling business culture, the authorities seem to pay particularly close attention when the deal-making generates fortunes approaching $10 billion. Deng Xiaoping declared that “it’s glorious to be rich,” but the message now is, not too rich. The government appears intent on generating competitive churn at the top, in part to contain social resentments.
Now look at Russia, where one hundred billionaires control fortunes worth an astonishing 20 percent of national GDP. Russia has nearly as many billionaires as China but they control twice as much total wealth in an economy one-fourth the size. Just as striking, Russia is missing not only a middle class but also a millionaire class; according to Boston Consulting Group, China ranks third in the world for number of millionaires, while Russia is not even in the top 15 for millionaires.
The growing business influence of the state is reflected in the fact that 69 of those billionaires live in Moscow, the largest concentration for any city in the world. Protected by their patrons, the richest face little competition. Eight of the top 10 are holdovers from 2006. More than 80 percent of the wealth of Russian billionaires comes from non-productive industries like real estate, construction and especially commodities, namely oil and gas, in which political ties can sustain fortunes indefinitely. In no other developing nation is this share greater than 35 percent. Even in Brazil, a commodity economy at the same income level as Russia, the non-productive share of billionaires’ wealth is just 12 percent.
If billionaires are prospering by cultivating political connections, rather than new industries, it could feed the kind of revolt that toppled Suharto in Indonesia in the 1990s.
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