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Mohamed A. El-Erian Headshot

New Billionaire Index Reflects Competing Social Forces

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On Monday morning, Bloomberg News ran two stories on its "TOP" page regarding its new "Global Daily Ranking of Billionaires." By 3 pm (eastern), they were the second and third most read Bloomberg stories over the last 24 hours... and it is not as if it was a quiet news day overall. All of which led to me wonder about the social drivers -- particularly the balance between outdated attitudes on wealth and progress towards more socially-constructive behaviors.

First, some interesting facts that came to light directly from the two Bloomberg stories.

For those of you who like fresh data, Bloomberg will update "each net worth figure... every business day at 5:30 pm in New York." And for those who favor comprehensive research, the updates shed light on "the world's wealthiest people based on market and economic changes and Bloomberg reporting." Indeed, Bloomberg assures us that "the profiles feature a transparent analysis of how each billionaire's fortune was calculated."

Not surprisingly, the horse race commentaries have started based on the new data. On Monday morning we learned that, despite his dramatic Facebook success, Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is "not rich enough for [the] global billionaire ranking."

Outside the US, Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista (who ranked tenth on the Bloomberg list) intends to displace over time Carlos Slim, his Latin American peer who is ranked first. Noting that he is "competitive," Mr. Batista told Bloomberg "It's Brazil's time to be No. 1. Brazilians have always admired the American dream."

The data tell us that this group -- which, according to Bloomberg's definition, covers twenty individuals with $677 billion in wealth -- is not just an American affair. Just over half come from other countries, including Brazil, China, France, India, Mexico, Spain, and Sweden.

It should come as no surprise that all this information was eagerly gobbled up by Bloomberg readers. We live in a society that has long had a fascination with the ultra rich -- who are they, how did they acquire their fortunes, and what are they doing with it. Moreover, many of Bloomberg's users are in the financial sector, a place where too many people still treat wealth as an overwhelming factor in assessing lifetime achievements.

What may come as more of a surprise is that all this is happening now -- a time when, helped by the Occupy movements around the world, income and wealth inequalities have firmly been placed on the policy agenda. And this speaks to the risks and opportunities of Bloomberg new initiative.

The launch of the Billionaires Index could be yet another illustration that certain segments of society remain tone deaf when it comes to social realities. Indeed, some could view it as a sign of how information disseminators and opinion leaders are overly interested in metrics that say little about the underlying health and well-being of society.

This is clearly a risk. Fortunately there are countervailing forces.

Thanks to the efforts of many, a growing number of politically and financially influential people are recognizing that, in today's highly interconnected world that is trying to overcome anemic growth and an unemployment crisis, the well-being of the rich cannot (and should not) be viewed in isolation. To use one of my favorite real estate analogies, it is hard to be a great house in a weakening neighborhood -- which leads to the upside of the new data releases.

Some of the names on Bloomberg's Billionaire Index are already engaged meaningfully and effectively in deploying their wealth for the betterment of society. In addition to their considerable philanthropic donations, individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (ranked second and third, respectively, by Bloomberg) have been spearheading initiatives to ensure that fellow billionaire devote more of their wealth to socially-constructive ends.

This is where the potential upside comes in. Bloomberg's daily identification of the top billionaires could reinforce a trend where these individuals, and many others, allocate a growing portion of their wealth in a manner that helps society as a whole. In this way, the appeal of the index would prove to be less about what has happened and more about the responsibility that the rich share to help the least and less fortunate members of our global society.