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Forbes 400: Bill, Warren, and the richest Americans are $270 billion richer

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Manish Swarup/AP/File

(Read caption) Bill and Melinda Gates talk to Indian writer Chetan Bhagat, unseen, in New Delhi. Bill Gates is the richest person on the Forbes 400 for the 21st year in a row, with a net worth of $81 billion. Combined, the 400 richest Americans have net worth of about $2.29 trillion.

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Forbes released its 33rd annual list of the 400 richest Americans Monday, and the barrier to entry was higher than ever in 2014. The lowest net worth to make the cut was $1.55 billion; all in all, 113 of America’s billionaires didn’t even make the list.

So, how much richer are the country’s richest citizens this year compared with last year? Combined, they’re worth about $2.29 trillion, up $270 billion from a year ago. As Forbes notes, that’s roughly the gross domestic product of Brazil. The average net worth of the list's members is $5.7 billion, up $700 million from last year. Both the combined and average net worth figures are the highest since Forbes began tracking wealth statistics 33 years ago.

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The numbers may be different, but the names at the top were largely the same. Microsoft founder Bill Gates topped this list for the 21st year in a row, and his $81 billion net worth was $9 billion higher than it was last year. Warren Buffett came in second with $67 billion (up $8.5 billion from 2013). Oracle founder Larry Ellison rounded out the top three (net worth $50 billion; up $9 billion from 2013).

The biggest mover was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose wealth grew by $15 billion since last year to $34 billion. He now ranks 11th on the list, thanks, once again, to the stock market – Facebook shares have soared in value over the past year.

The top stayed consistent, but there was some movement on the bottom end: 27 new billionaires made the list, including people behind some of the most recognizable tech startups in recent years: Jan Koum of new Facebook acquisition WhatsApp ($7.6 billion); Travis Kalanick of Uber ($3 billion); and GoPro founder Nicholas Woodman, whose wealth has tripled since last year from $1.3 billion to $3.9 billion.

As in previous years since the end of the Great Recession, much of the growth on the Forbes 400 can be attributed to the stock market, which is in the throes of a bull run entering its sixth year. The richest Americans generally have a greater proportion of their wealth in equities; lower income levels have more of their wealth tied up in real estate. And while the former has grown leaps and bounds in recent years, the latter has struggled to maintain its footing. 

What’s more, stock ownership post-recession is more heavily concentrated among the wealthy, and overall, it’s shrinking: According to a recent Gallup Poll, 52 percent of Americans owned stocks in 2013; down from a peak of 67 percent in 2002. The wealthiest 10 percent of American households control 80 percent of stocks and mutual funds, according to a 2010 Pew study. 

There was one major change to the Forbes list for 2014. “For the first time ever, Forbes has assigned a  ‘self-made score,’ to each member in an effort to better distinguish how far some list members have climbed to make the ranks,” the press announcement for the Forbes 400 reads. “This measurement runs from 1 (inherited wealth, with no activity to build the fortune) to 10 (classic Horatio Alger saga).”

And in the US, at least, the self-made billionaire is now more the rule than the exception. “Even 20 years ago, more than half of The Forbes 400 came via inherited wealth,” the release reads. “This year, more than two-thirds are self-made.”