N. America's Rich Can't Keep Pace

cheating, money, 48 hours
The ranks of the world's millionaires increased in 2002, but at a slower pace than in the past because of weak global economies and stock market declines. However, the number of North American millionaires actually dropped.

An annual study released Wednesday estimates that there were 7.3 million people in the world with financial assets of $1 million or more at the end of 2002, up 2.1 percent from the previous year. The increase, down from 3 percent in 2001, was the lowest rise in the survey's seven-year history.

The wealth these people have amassed, meanwhile, grew 3.6 percent in 2002 to $27.2 trillion, compared with growth of 3 percent in 2001 to $26.2 trillion, the study showed. In market boom years such as 1999, millionaires saw their wealth grow as much as 18 percent.

The "World Wealth Report" was prepared by the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm and the Cap Gemini Ernst & Young consulting firm.

Brokers, bankers and other financial experts watch the figures closely because people with high net worth tend to be their best customers, although they represent just a small fraction of the world's 6.3 billion people.

James P. Gorman, executive vice president of Merrill Lynch and head of its private client group, said that the fact that there were more millionaires in the world despite global economic difficulties "reflects the resilience of this very attractive market segment."

The study predicts, too, that their wealth will increase an average of 7 percent a year over the next five years to $38 trillion at the end of 2007.

Gorman said that wealthy individuals were not hurt as badly by stock market declines because they tend to be conservative investors.

He said that the typical high net worth individual last year had 30 percent invested in fixed-income instruments such as bonds and 25 percent in cash, with just 20 percent in equities. Their other holdings included 15 percent invested in real estate and 10 percent in alternative investments, such as hedge funds.

That shows, he said, that "a properly diversified portfolio is resilient even in the most difficult market environments."

James S. Greene, a vice president at Cap Gemini, said that the wealthy were helped in both preserving and increasing their assets by an average of seven to nine financial advisers, from planners to accountants, brokers and lawyers.

He said that those who are less wealthy may not be able to hire advisers but can benefit from the growing amount of financial data available on the Internet.

"There's an abundance of information available, whether you're worth $30 million or $3 million or $30,000," he said.

He added: "The industry continues to move down the stream, toward that (smaller) investor with tools, products and services."

On a regional basis, the number of millionaires declined in North America, where stock markets fell sharply, and in Latin America, where economic and political turmoil took a toll, the report said. Their ranks increased, meanwhile, in Africa, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Europe, it said.

The study's regional breakdown:

  • Europe — The region with the largest number of millionaires, Europe saw the ranks of its high net worth individuals rise 3.9 percent to about 2.6 million, while their wealth rose 4.8 percent to $8.8 trillion.

    The report cited strong economic growth in emerging European economies and appreciation of the euro and British sterling against the dollar.

  • North America — The number of millionaires fell 1.9 percent to about 2.2 million, while their wealth fell 2.1 percent to $7.4 trillion.

    Problems from weak economic growth were compounded by "a significant drop in stock market capitalization and decrease in savings rates," the report said.

  • Asia-Pacific — This region had the strongest growth in both the number of high net worth individuals, up 4.9 percent, to 1.8 million people, and wealth, up 10.7 percent to $5.7 trillion.

    The report said solid economic growth and continued high savings rates outweighed mixed market and currency performances.

  • Latin America — The number of high net worth individuals declined 3.6 percent to 300,000, but their wealth rose 2.7 percent to $3.6 trillion.

    The report noted that economic growth was weak in Brazil and Mexico, while the oil crisis in Venezuela and crash of the Argentine peso sparked recession.

  • Middle East — The number of wealthy individuals rose 4.7 percent to 300,000, while their wealth increased 4.6 percent to $1.1 trillion.
  • Africa — The region saw its wealthy population increase 4.9 percent to 100,000, while their wealth rose 4.3 percent to $600 billion.