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The World's Most Powerful People

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What do the president of the United States, the Pope and the founder of Facebook all have in common? They’re all featured on Forbes’ 2012 ranking of the World’s Most Powerful People –an annual look at the heads of state, financiers, philanthropists and entrepreneurs who truly run the world.

To compile the list, we considered hundreds of candidates from various walks of life all around the globe, and measured their power along four dimensions. First, we asked whether the candidate has power over lots of people. Pope Benedict XVI, ranked #5 on our list, is the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics, or about 1/6th of the world’s population. Michael Duke (#17), CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, employs two million people.

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Next we assessed the financial resources controlled by each person. Are they relatively large compared to their peers? For heads of state we used GDP, while for CEOs, we looked at measures like their company’s assets and revenues. When candidates have a high personal net worth –like the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helu (#11)– we also took that into consideration. In certain instances, like Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, we considered other valuable resources at the candidate’s disposal–like 20% of the world’s known oil reserves.

Then we determined if the candidate is powerful in multiple spheres. There are only 71 slots on our list – one for every 100 million people on the planet – so being powerful in just one area is often not enough. Our picks project their influence in myriad ways: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (#16) has power because he’s a politician, because he’s a billionaire, because he’s a media magnate, and because he’s a major philanthropist.

Lastly, we made sure that the candidates actively used their power. Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin (#3) scored points because he so frequently shows his strength — like when he jails protestors.

To calculate the final rankings, ten senior Forbes editors ranked all of our candidates in each of these four dimensions of power, and those individual rankings were averaged into a composite score.

U.S. President Barack Obama emerged, unanimously, as the world’s most powerful person, for the second year running. Obama was the decisive winner of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, and now he gets four more years to push his agenda. The President faces major challenges, including an unresolved budget crisis, stubbornly high unemployment and renewed unrest in the Middle East. But Obama remains the unquestioned commander in chief of the world’s greatest military, and head of its sole economic and cultural superpower.

The second most powerful person in the world also happens to be the most powerful woman: Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, jumps up from #4 last year to take the runner-up spot on the list. Merkel is the backbone of the 27-member European Union and carries the fate of the Euro on her shoulders; she’s shown her power through a hard-line austerity solution for the European debt crisis.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (#25) is one of the youngest persons on the list, at age 29; he dropped significantly from last year’s top-ten ranking after Facebook’s much-anticipated IPO turned out to be a flop. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (#18) is one of the list’s biggest gainers: At the midpoint of her first term, Rousseff’s emphasis on entrepreneurship has prompted a slew of new startups and energized Brazilian youths.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (#35) made a big upward move, too: A year after he succeeded iconic founder Steve Jobs, the company is the most valuable in the world. Apple stock hit an all-time high in September, at $696.82 a share: That’s up $319 from the day Jobs died in October 2011.

New members of the list include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman (#71), the world’s most powerful venture capitalist and the most-connected man in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk (#66), the entrepreneur behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, is the most powerful man in space: His company SpaceX is a leader in the private space industry, and with that business set to boom, Musk stands to make out like a 19th-century railway tycoon.

A number of prominent people fell off the entirely. Last year’s #2, Chinese President Hu Jintao, is on his way out of office; he’s already handed over some of his duties, and will surrender the rest early next year. We removed U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the list for the same reasons: They’re both not expected to return to their powerful posts for Obama’s second term.

Any ranking of the world’s most powerful people is going to be subjective, so we don’t pretend ours is definitive. It’s meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not the final word. So tell us what you think: Is ex-president Bill Clinton (#50) really more powerful than the current Prime Minister of Russia (#61)? Does someone like the chief of the Internal Federation of Association Football (#69) belong on the list at all? Who did we miss? What did we get wrong? Join the conversation by commenting below.

Check out the full list: The World’s Most Powerful People

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The World's Most Powerful People
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