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For the billionaire set, it was a very ugly year

It's tough being a billionaire this year: The world's richest people have paid a heavy price for economic slowdown, market upheaval and the Sept. 11 jitters.

Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates lost nearly $6-billion (U.S.) alone in net worth since a year ago, but preserved a cool $52.8-billion. He once again leads Forbes magazine's 16th annual ranking of the world's billionaires, which was released yesterday.

Warren Buffett, the sage investor of Omaha, retains his No. 2 slot at $35-billion in the closely watched rankings. That's $2.7-billion more than last year, despite the big hit his reinsurance business took after the U.S. terrorist attacks.

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Ultrarich Canadians were not immune from the harder times. Kenneth Thomson, art lover and publishing baron, saw his wealth wane to $14.9-billion, down from $16.4-billion.

Still, Mr. Thomson, the chairman of The Globe and Mail, edged up a notch to No. 13 worldwide.

After Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett, the rest of the top five are German retailers Karl and Theo Albrecht, at $26.8-billion; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, at $25.2-billion; and bitter Microsoft foe Larry Ellison, Oracle Corp. chairman, at $23.5-billion.

Some tech titans took big hits, with AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case slipping off the billionaire list, along with Gary Winnick, chairman of Global Crossing, a former high flyer now in bankruptcy.

The world's billionaires saw their total net worth plunge to a mere $1.54-trillion, down from $1.73-trillion a year ago, Forbes reports.

Another indicator that times are truly rough: The number of billionaires fell by a net 41 to 497 from the previous year. Eighty-three former billionaires were reduced to mere millionaires.

Fifteen Canadians made the global list, down one from last year. Telecommunications entrepreneur Germain Lamonde dropped out of the club, and reclusive Alberta investors Ron and Fred Mannix didn't make the cut.

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The perplexing omission is Ottawa telecommunications magnate Terry Matthews, who traded countries, according to Forbes. The Welsh-born Mr. Matthews, a dual citizen who was knighted last year, is now listed as a British entry at No. 378 with $1.2-billion. A year ago, he was a Canadian with a lot more money -- $1.9-billion.

In fact, the nationalities of this jet-setting crowd are a confusing jumble, reflecting the globalization of business. Charles Bronfman, whose stewardship of former liquor giant Seagram left him with $2.5-billion fortune, is listed as Canadian although he has shifted operations to New York from Montreal. His brother Edgar, at $3-billion, is identified as an American.

Jeff Skoll, a Canadian who helps run eBay in California, gets Canadian status and we'll take him; he's at No. 191 with a net worth of $2.2-billion, although that's down a half-billion dollars from last year.

Former Quebec cable king André Chagnon, flush from selling his company Vidéotron to Quebecor Inc., is a new addition to the list at No. 413 with $1.1-billion. Montreal investor Paul Desmarais comes in at No. 277 with $1.6-billion, but more astonishing is why he wasn't on the list last year.

The top five Canadians are Mr. Thomson, followed by food tycoon Galen Weston, at $4.2-billion (No. 82 over all); New Brunswick capitalists James, Arthur and John Irving, with $4.1-billion (No. 84); and pharmaceuticals kingpin Bary Sherman and Charles Bronfman, tied at $2.5-billion (No. 157).

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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