My Billionaire List Is Better Than Yours: Forbes and Bloomberg Get Company

Billionaire lists attract as much media attention as just about anything. The new “Wealth-X and UBS World Ultra Wealth Report 2013,” released Wednesday, counts the number of the world’s billionaires, without naming them. The researchers found 2,170 billionaires. Not 2,169 or 2,171.

The long-lived list that Forbes puts out is much better than the one from UBS. So is the newer one from Bloomberg. They include the name of every billionaire in the world. Bloomberg even measures how their net worths change from day to day.

The trouble with the Forbes and Bloomberg lists is that they do not agree with one another, which should not happen. People either are billionaires or they are not. Based on global data, the top of the Bloomberg list is occupied by Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT). Forbes puts Carlos Slim in the top spot with Gates at number two.

The lists do not agree on Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s (NYSE: BRK-A) Warren Buffett. Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle Corp. (NASDAQ: ORCL) and failed America’s Cup boat owner, is in a different spot on each list as well.

After the differences among the top 10 people, the lists diverge more and more as they move down the super-wealth ladder.

Until there is one common measure for billionaire wealth, many people will question the Forbes and Bloomberg lists. After all, Forbes and Bloomberg are among the most respected media in the world. One or the other must have the list wrong. Or maybe they both do.

It never has been entirely clear how the lists are compiled, and therein may be the problem. If one methodology is different from the other, the results obviously will differ.

The billionaire measurement industry needs a standards committee or a commissioner like those in a number of sports. No two teams in the NFL get to play by different rules. The same is true with Olympic events, and even the Tour de France. However, in the bike race, the winners keep changing, even long after the race is over.

Billionaire lists need to recapture their respectability so people can know who is rich and who really is not.