Davos Billionaires No Longer Discuss Inequality

A year ago, preparing for my first trip to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, I couldn’t get the world’s richest to stop talking about income inequality.

Speaking to more than a dozen billionaires, each bemoaned the difference between the Earth’s haves and have-nots amid the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“Many who will be in Davos are the people being blamed for economic inequalities. I hope it’s not just about glamor and people having a big party,” said billionaire Vikas Oberoi.

“These growing inequalities are not acceptable. The rich have done much better than the poor, and that creates problems,” said billionaire Rahul Bajaj, the billionaire chairman of Bajaj Group.

“If we don’t take cognizance of it and try to solve this problem, it can create a chaotic upheaval globally,” said Azim Premji, who is worth $16 billion.

When I arrived in Davos last January, I took a shuttle van to “Igloo City,” the makeshift home of a few dozen Occupy Davos protestors who had come to bring attention income disparity at the conference, which attracts more than 2,500 business and political leaders and scores of billionaires. Etched in red spray-paint in pristine white snow: “Capitalism Kills.”

Premji’s upheaval never came. By the end of the first day, no one wanted to talk about the inequality. The European economic crisis was the topic du jour, as it is to many coming to the Swiss ski resort this year.

Since last year’s conference adjourned, the world’s richest got richer — along with much of most of the rest of the world –- as global stocks soared. The MSCI World Index gained 13.2 percent in 2012. The Standard and Poor’s 500 Index rose 13.4 percent. European stocks surged in the second half of the year.

In 2012, the world’s top 100 billionaires added $241 billion to their collective net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily interactive visualization of the wealthiest individuals on Earth. The aggregate net worth of the world’s top moguls stood at $1.9 trillion at the market close on Dec. 31, according to the index.

Retail fortunes surged about 20 percent on average during the year. Of the 100 people who appeared on the final ranking of 2012, only 16 registered a net loss for the 12-month period.

Amancio Ortega, the Spaniard who founded retailer Inditex SA, was the year’s biggest gainer. The 76-year-old tycoon’s fortune increased $22.2 billion to $57.5 billion, as shares of Inditex, operator of the Zara clothing chain, rose 66.7 percent. He surpassed U.S. investor Warren Buffett as the world’s third-richest man in August.

Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man, gained $8.1 billion during the year as shares of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA and its publicly traded holding company Christian Dior SA soared. The 63-year-old, who is applying for Belgian citizenship for “personal” reasons, controls 46.5 percent of LVMH’s share capital, according to the annual report of the Paris-based maker of Louis Vuitton handbags and Moet & Chandon champagne.

Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos, 48, added $6.9 billion to his net worth as shares of the world’s largest online retailer rose 45 percent. The four heirs to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. fortune — Jim Walton, Christy Walton, Alice Walton and Rob Walton — gained a combined $13.5 billion. Stefan Persson, the chairman of Swedish clothing retailer Hennes & Mauritz AB, added $2.7 billion.

What do you think the billionaire’s visiting Davos will want to discuss this year. Send me your thoughts @MG_Miller on twitter.

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