Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the one of the world’s richest men, and he may become the first trillionaire. But some think Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged $200 billion fortune surpasses Bezos’ paltry $90 billion. Who is really #1?
It depends how you count.
First, the numbers are dodgy.
Putin critic Bill Browder, once Russia’s largest foreign investor, says Putin has a $200 billion fortune (compared to Russia’s $1.6 trillion GDP). Browder was ejected from Russia in 2005 after being designated a "threat to national security" and said of his activism, “I was not going after his [Putin’s] enemies, I was going after his [Putin’s] own financial interests.”
He hasn’t produced any proof of the $200 billion other than his “belief,” but his humiliating ejection from Russia and the death in prison of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, might be related.
Second, no one manages $200 billion by themselves. If Putin “had” $200 billion he would demand it be managed well, and that means managed as a portfolio. A portfolio similar in size to Putin’s is Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway with a total equity of $283 billion. What do you do with $283 billion? You buy things like a railroad or large, visible positions in the airline sector. (And after all that, Buffet still has $100 billion in cash left over.) Managing all that money requires lawyers and financial specialists who are world-class at managing money and keeping their mouths shut. Forever.
The claim that Putin is richest man in the world rests on the assumption that he has front men managing his money. How easy is to do that and not be noticed? Well, for comparison, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud of Saudi Arabia is worth $17.8 billion. But according to The Economist, “his sums don’t add up,” in part because he could be fronting for others members of the Saudi royal family. We can infer from this that Putin would need a herd of billionaires to do his bidding as his alleged fortune is almost 12 times larger than Alwaleed’s, while he has managed to maintain more secrecy than any Saudi royal.
You have to go back in Russian history to know how Putin manages his assets.
Back one hundred years in fact, to the reign of Czar Nicholas II when the wealth of the Romanovs was estimated to be $45 billion (in 1917 dollars) and it was “impossible to separate Czar Nicholas II's wealth from the state's.” Putin probably has a few billion somewhere just to oil the wheels, but who needs bank accounts when the assets of the state are yours?
Like all politicians, Putin probably considers himself immortal. But he also probably remembers what happened to the families of Soviet officials who were purged: if they were lucky they survived their sentence to the Gulag. Which brings us to Putin’s friends and their children, the Kremlin juniors.
Putin’s closest friends from St. Petersburg, such as Gennady Timchenko and Yuri Kovalchuk, the largest shareholder in Bank Rossiya, are reputed to be some of the sources of Putin’s wealth. As such, they were sanctioned by the U.S. in the wake of Russia’s seizure of Crimea but will likely stand firm because they believe in Putin and they know what happened to those in the first generation of oligarchs who wavered.
Nikolai Shamalov is a Putin friend and co-founder with Putin and others of The Ozero (Lake) Cooperative, a development near St. Petersburg. (As Putin friends go, you don’t get closer than an Ozero owner.) His two sons, Yury and Kiril, went on to important positions in state-influenced companies, and Kiril married Putin’s daughter Katerina at a resort owned by Yuri Kovalchuk. The couple is reportedly worth $2 billion.
Russia’s first post-Soviet ruling class may expire peacefully with substantial assets in the hands of their children. Do they have more money than Bezos? It’s hard to tell, but it doesn’t matter if you have the power.
As he shuffles off this mortal coil, the unrepentant Chekist will smile knowing he beat them all.