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Image: Carlos Slim
Johan Ordonez  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Carlos Slim Helú of Mexico tops the ranks for the third year in a row, but the gap between him and Bill Gates is tightening again.
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updated 3/7/2012 12:00:11 PM ET 2012-03-07T17:00:11

A quarter century ago Forbes published our first annual list of the World’s Billionaires — and we found 140. This year the list broke records for the most number of billionaires (1,226) and combined net worth, at $4.6 trillion, up from $4.5 trillion. Behind those numbers is a more complicated story of rapid change among the world’s wealthiest. Innovation, strong consumer brands and a rebounding U.S. stock market helped produce 128 newcomers and brought 17 former members back into the ranks, while falling stock markets, particularly in China and Russia, were the main culprit for knocking 117 billionaires off the list. Another 12 members from the 2011 list passed away, including buyout titan Teddy Forstmann and Apple’s Steve Jobs, whose wife Laurene Powell Jobs takes his spot. Overall, 460 billionaires got richer, 441 got poorer and another 180 held steady.

There are now billionaires from 58 countries. The U.S. is still home to more billionaires than any other country, with 425, a gain of 12. Mainland China and Russia were both clobbered. They have 95 and 96, respectively, down from 115 and 101 last year. The BRIC nations, which were such a force of wealth creation a year ago, have 26 fewer ten-figure fortunes, with only Brazil adding to its bounty.

Carlos Slim Helú of Mexico tops the ranks for the third year in a row, but the gap between him and Bill Gates is tightening again. His fortune, at $69 billion, is down $5 billion from a year ago. He was one of 7 in the top 20 whose fortunes slipped, including Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison.

Forbes.com: Complete list of the world’s billionaires

Meanwhile Gates, whose foundation helped wipe out polio in India, was $5 billion richer at $61 billion as Microsoft shares hit a ten-year high. Amancio Ortega, the man behind fast fashion chain Zara, moved into the top 5 for the first time, despite having stepped down as chairman the previous year. India’s Lakshmi Mittal, who runs the world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, was the year’s biggest loser. His fortune plummeted by $10.4 billion, knocking him out of the top 10 for the first time since 2004. He is ranked No. 21. In a sign that great fortunes can come from almost anywhere, only 3 of the top 10 richest hail from the U.S., one fewer than last year.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

There are lots of ingenious ways to make fortunes, not the least of which is using a popular brand to cater to a world full of consumers. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is worth $17.5 billion, up $4 billion from a year ago; he may be worth far more once Facebook goes public this spring. Notable newcomers with stellar brands include Kevin Plank, founder of trendy sportswear maker Under Armour, and Sara Blakely, with her Spanx line of newfangled girdles. Blakely, 41, is the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire. Another notable woman in the ranks is Miuccia Prada, who returns to the list after a six-year absence. Two American immigrants to make their debut are the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shahid Khan, who came from Pakistan when he was 16 and is the first minority immigrant owner of an NFL team, and 5-Hour Energy’s Manoj Bhargava, who emigrated as a boy from India.

A note on methodology
More than 50 reporters in 16 countries worked on compiling the list this year, valuing individuals' public holdings, private companies, real estate, yachts, art and cash. Net worths were locked in using stock prices and exchange rates from Feb. 14.

Forbes.com: The world’s billionaire women
Forbes.com: The world’s billionaire newcomers
Forbes.com: The world’s youngest billionaires
Forbes.com: The world’s billionaire dropoffs

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