The 2005 Forbes 400 list is out, and once again, alas, I failed to make the cut.
And the cut this year is an altogether impressive $900 million. Only twenty-three on the list are worth less than a billion. A mere ten years ago, $340 million got you a spot among the American financial seraphim.
In truth, the Forbes 400 list has tracked the greatest period of wealth creation in the country’s history, for it isn’t only the super-rich who have done well in the last quarter century, it’s nearly everyone. Two-thirds of American families now own their own homes, and real estate has been among the best investments in the last quarter century.
The Forbes 400 list was a brilliant publishing concept, widely imitated now in other publications. But the idea didn’t originate with Forbes. Far from it. The first list of the super rich of which I am aware dates back all the way to 1845, when Moses Y. Beach, editor of the New York Sun, put out a pamphlet called Wealth and Biographies of Wealthy Citizens of New York. It purported to give the size and origin of every fortune in New York City worth over $100,000. With few sources of reliable information, such as 10K reports to the SEC, it must have been based on rumor, gossip, and supposition. But it was highly entertaining gossip and ran through numerous editions over the next decade or so.
The richest man in New York in 1845? John Jacob Astor, supposed to be worth $25 million. That’s about 1/2000th of the fortune of the current number one, Bill Gates.