March of the oligarchs

By bne IntelliNews April 2, 2012

bne -

If Forbes magazine is to be believed, 2011 was good year for the world's wealthiest individuals.

In its March edition, Forbes lists the world's billionaires in an exercise the magazine began 25 years ago, when it identified 140 people that were worth a billion dollars or more, mostly Americans. This year's list contained a massive 1,226 billionaires (up from 1,210 in 2010), who had a combined net worth of a record $4.6 trillion. So the crisis doesn't seem to have hurt everyone, then.

What continued in this year's list is the growing importance of the emerging markets in the make-up of the world's wealthiest. The BRIC nations are home to a quarter of the names on the 2011 list, up from 10% in 2006. Of the 310 billionaires in Europe - the world's richest region - Russia dominates, being home to 96 billionaires this year, up from 79 in 2010

The increasing number of ultra-high net worth individuals in Russia should come as no surprise; bne reported last year that the chance of becoming a billionaire is the highest in Russia. Between 2004 and 2011, Russia produced one billionaire for every 1.87m people, compared with the US, the next best place to be, where one billionaire was created for every 2.29m. "After all, there certainly weren't any billionaires in Russia in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved, and probably none until 1994 when the first businessmen began to secure control over privatised property. But since then, Russia has been churning out billionaires by the dozen every year," says Jacob Nell, an analyst with Morgan Stanley in Moscow, who calculated the odds of becoming a billionaire in each market.


Despite the glitter of the Forbes list, the US magazine has only scratched the surface of who owns the wealth in emerging markets. bne has found there are dozens of other names that should be on the list - some that are obvious, some that aren't. Clearly, Forbes grossly underestimates the number and wealth of the region's richest. "I could give you at least another 10 names, but I am not sure it is a good idea," says one high-profile banker in Moscow. "Some of the oligarchs don't mind being famous, but there are a lot more that don't want the attention. If I gave you the names, it would be dropping a hot brick in my lap - and in theirs."

The bulk of Russia's money - which is home to half of the richest men in Europe - exists in the "shadowlands": this money is not necessarily illegally acquired, but the power of the Russian state and the unpredictability of the business environment means that if you have money and want to keep it, then it is usually advisable to keep your head down.

Just how many billionaires are "really" out there? Quantifying the acknowledged and more public wealth of the world's most successful businessmen and women is a tricky business. In addition to hiding much of their wealth from the powers that be, even the publicly acknowledged rich in the West have complex investments, some of which are public and some of which are not. For example The Economist has attempted to disentangle the empires of both British billionaire Richard Branson (#255 on the list, worth $4.2bn in 2011) and Swedish furniture king Ingvar Kamprad (#377, $3bn) only to conclude that IKEA, "ingeniously exploits the quirks of different jurisdictions to... minimises tax and disclosure." The confusion is highlighted by the newly launched "Bloomberg Billionaires Index" that updates estimates of the world's richest on a daily basis; Bloomberg estimates Kamprad's wealth at $42bn - more than 10 times Forbes' estimate this year.

Given this, imagine how much more effective wealth-hiding schemes work in the rough-and-ready jurisdictions of Eastern Europe, which appears to be emerging as a global money-laundering hub.

Billionaire city

Trying to draw up a definitive list of billionaires in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States is a thankless (and probably dangerous) task, as bne quickly discovered. Most of the investment banks in the region have a pretty good idea of where the money is, but to actually list their biggest clients would put them out of business - or worse.

Still, there are several names that pop out even on a cursory examination, and others that are more speculative but can be included with a high degree of confidence.

Probably the most glaring omission from the Forbes list is Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin, who is worth around $40bn if the local press is to be believed. In 2007, ahead of the previous presidential election, Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovski caused a minor political storm when he claimed in a newspaper interview in that Putin secretly owned shares in oil company Surgutneftegaz, state-controlled gas giant Gazprom and oil trading company Gunvor. If true (the Kremlin has denied the accusations and no evidence has ever been presented), then Putin would be the fifth richest man on the planet, just behind Bernard Arnault, the owner of luxury good company LVMH, worth $41bn.

In fact, the whole of the Russian government is chock full of millionaires (just look at the quality of their suits and the cost of their watches), and probably even a smattering of billionaires. Apart from Putin, the other famous example of wealthy politicians is former telecommunications minister Leonid Reiman, who was accused of being the real owner of Megafon, Russia's third largest mobile phone company. While Reiman has never admitted to the charge, the accusations were partly held up by a Swedish Arbitration court that found him guilty of corruption in 2006. The company was worth at least $16bn at the time of the dispute, according to Deutsche Bank, and is several times that now.

In general, the corruption in the Kremlin is legion. Several years ago, the World Bank commissioned a study to see how concentrated wealth was amongst Russian companies and found that 22 of them controlled about 25% of the country's annual GDP. However, according to bne sources, the researchers also uncovered vast business empires controlled by government officials or their families - a part of the report that was quashed for political reasons. Other senior ministers were found to own shares in many of the state-owned blue chips, according to one banker who worked on the report.

More difficult to assess are the prominent oligarchs in difficulty. Exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky was once one of the seven richest men in Russia. Today, Forbes estimates his worth at less than $1bn and the Sunday Times' rich list puts his net worth at about $900m. However, as Berezovsky made heavy use of transfer pricing schemes in his efforts to "privatise the cash flow" of nominally state-owned companies like Aeroflot, who knows how much he really has stashed in offshore havens.

Jailed oligarch and former Yukos oil company owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky presents a similar problem. At one time the richest man in the world under the age of 40, no one is sure just how much he and his partners Platon Lebedev (jailed alongside Khodorkovsky) and Leonid Nevzlin (who lives in exile in Israel) are worth today. But like Berezovsky, for years Yukos ran massive transfer-pricing schemes: this correspondent was at a shareholder meeting where the company signed off on a deal to sell oil at $1.25 per barrel to an "independent" trading company at a time when the price of oil was closer to $25. Billions of dollars disappeared into offshore black holes and is probably still hiding there. Moreover, Khodorkovsky set up the personal investment fund GMR in his heyday to invest into anything but oil, which was kept out of the claws of the state and run by former Yukos CFO Bruce Misamore after Khodorkovsky was jailed.

And then there are simply the legion of oligarchs that prefer to remain in the shadows. You don't have to look far for evidence of a massive amount of undeclared cash floating about. In a recent interview with bne, the chief financial officer of VTB bank, Herbert Moos, says its newly established private bank already holds a quarter of the group's entire retail deposits, some $10bn of Russian money that has returned from overseas since the crisis started. Likewise, when leading retail lender Rosbank set up a private banking division, the chairman told bne that quickly a third of the bank's entire retail deposit portfolio belonged to a mere 1,000 customers.

The money flowing back into Russia is partly a function of increasing fear among some wealthy Central Europeans that their cash isn't as safe as it once was in the traditional offshore havens like Switzerland.

By way of illustration, the ongoing corruption scandal in the Czech Republic involving the controversial privatisation of the Czech coal miner Mostecka uhelna spolecnost (MUS) began when the Swiss authorities found CZK12bn (€480m) in local bank accounts that is believed to be linked to six Czechs and one Belgian who are suspected of having siphoned off cash from MUS. Several years ago the Swiss provided the Czech authorities with the information concerning these individuals and invited them to join the case it intended to pursue against them, only for the Czechs to sit on the information and do nothing.

Click here to see a list of some of the names bne believes are missing from the Forbes list.

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