Where Are World’s Millionaires? Asia Jumps Into No. 2 Spot

Capgemini-Merrill survey shows number of wealthy and amount of wealth at all-time high; does tax burden direct wealth trends?

Looking for the world’s wealthy? Go east, young man. That’s the conclusion of the Capgemini-Merrill Lynch annual survey of high-net-worth individuals, which found that Asia’s burgeoning affluent population overtook Europe’s rich in 2010.

The World Wealth Report 2011 counted 3.3 million affluent individuals in Asia, close behind the top affluent region, North America, with 3.4 million high-net-worth individuals. For the first time in the survey’s 20-plus-year history, Europe slipped to the No. 3 spot, with 3.1 million rich people. Asia was able to eclipse Europe in 2010 because of a 9.7% increase in its number of wealthy individuals, compared to 6.3% growth rate in Europe. North America’s high-net-worth population grew by 8.6%.

Worldwide, 2010 was a good year for the world’s wealthy, who increased at an overall rate of 8.3% to number 10.9 million; their wealth grew by 9.7% to $42.7 trillion, surpassing the previous peak in 2007, before the economic crisis. The ultra-high-net worth population did even better, their ranks growing by 10.2% and their wealth by 11.5%.

Capgemini’s high-net-worth individuals had net investable assets of $1 million or more; ultra-high-net-worth are individuals with $30 million or more in financial assets.

Stocks and commodities did well in 2010, and that’s how the world’s affluent increased their wealth, boosting their equity holdings from 29% of their portfolios in 2009 to 33% in 2010, and commodities exposure from 16% of all alternative investments in 2009 to a more robust 22% proportion in 2010. The 31% allocation to real estate in Asia contributed to that region’s emergence thanks to a boom in property values underway in 2010; the global average allocation to real estate was just 19%.

While in the short-term the stock market boom, and Asia property boom, explains the record number of millionaires and peak wealth since the study was conducted, the longer-term trends favoring North America and Asia over Europe may flow from policies that encourage or discourage global capital flows. Data from the OECD tracking top marginal personal income tax rates across developed world economies show consistently higher tax rates in European countries over other advanced economies.

The “all-in” (i.e., including local taxes) top marginal rates for Denmark — Europe’s costliest tax jurisdiction — reaches 62.8%. Yet tax-friendlier major economies such as the U.K. (51%), Ireland (50%), France (49.8%) and Germany (47.5%) had rates quite a bit higher than Canada (46.4%), the United States (43.2%) and Mexico (29.6%). The OECD has not historically tracked the Asia-Pacific region, but the data it did have for just three countries in that region — Australia (46.5%), South Korea (38.5%) and New Zealand (38%) — suggests a lesser impediment to wealth creation.

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