If you hope to become a billionaire, the United States may be the best place to live. That's one obvious conclusion from Forbes' newly released list of billionaires for 2018.

From a global perspective, the old adage that the rich get richer didn't quite work out last year. There were a total of 2,153 billionaires at the end of 2018, 55 fewer than at the beginning of the year. As happens every year, some--including 21-year-old Kylie Jenner--went from being non-billionaires to billionaires during 2018, while others lost their billionaire status and fell off the list. Last year 247 billionaires became non-billionaires. That's the most to do so since 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. And of those who both started and ended the year as billionaires, 46 percent have lower net worth than they did at the beginning of the year. That's a record. China led the decline, with 49 people losing their billionaire status during 2018. Blame the country's slowing growth (still a very impressive 6.5 percent at the end of the year), along with a 20 percent decrease in the stock markets and a weakening of the renmimbi against other currencies.

But the U.S. bucked this downward trend. Our nation gained a net 21 billionaires this year, for a total of 607. That's slightly more than a 50 percent increase compared to 2010 when the U.S. had 404 billionaires. Fourteen of the 20 richest people in the world are Americans, including the top three: Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett.

Why is the U.S. doing better at producing billionaires than the rest of the world? There's no question our economy seems to be stronger than those of many other nations, with GDP growth of 2.9 percent and unemployment of 3 percent last year. Then there's the strength of the U.S. stock markets--a very direct factor since most billionaires hold most of their wealth in equities. And then there were the tax cuts enacted last year. 

But perhaps most important is the U.S.'s special relationship with entrepreneurs. It goes without saying that the majority of billionaires got there by founding their own companies, including the world's three richest people. (Technically Warren Buffett bought Berkshire Hathaway, but all that remains of that one-time textile manufacturer is the name.)

Entrepreneurs make up the bulk of new billionaires as well, most notably Kylie Jenner, the youngest billionaire in the world, who made headlines last year when she achieved billionaire status. Forbes defines her as a "self-made" billionaire, by which it means only that she didn't inherit her billions. It seems obvious that her family's notoriety is a big part of her success. Then again, consider the fact that the rest of the Kardashian clan aren't billionaires. Jenner has a monster social media following, which she created. That following led to the huge success of her cosmetics line, which again she created. Her net worth is helped by her decision to outsource nearly every function and keep overhead unbelievably low--she has only 12 employees, five of whom work part time. And she's identified and built up the perfect niche for her product line--the full-lip look, which she herself personifies. 

To be skeptical of Jenner's self-made billionaire label is to suggest that under normal circumstances, someone in their 20s, especially their early 20s could never become a billionaire. But of course, they can and have. Mark Zuckerberg was only 23 when he qualified for billionaire status. Stripe co-founder John Collison and Snap co-founder Evan Spiegel are both billionaires at 28. Considering that Jenner's 104 million Snapchat followers helped make her cosmetics a huge success, it's interesting to note that one under-30 American billionaire entrepreneur is partly responsible for the success of another.

Which is kind of how it goes. Whatever our nation's other shortcomings and strengths, it does seem to have the particular mix of resources, financial systems, laws, talent, and traditions that makes it the most likely place on Earth to start a company that will one day make you wildly wealthy. This year's billionaire list says that loud and clear.

Published on: Mar 6, 2019
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