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Infographic: How The Forbes 400 Richest Americans Became Billionaires

Sept. 28, 2012
Investing, Investing Data
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by Susan Lyon

You want to know what Star Wars, Panda Express, and Beanie Babies have in common?  The answer: a whole lot of money.  All three have made vast fortunes that have landed their creators on the official top 400 list of America’s richest billionaires.

Forbes’ newly released The Forbes 400: The Richest People in America list tells us a lot about these and the other 397 richest Americans and American households.  There are many big names that will stay at or near the top of the list for years to come – that’s you, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – but there are some surprises, too.  Who knew mozzarella, trucks, or hair spray could make you so rich?

We broke down the data by industry to find out who got rich how, as well as which industries are the most prominently represented:

There are some usual suspects, of course, with financial services, consumer retail, and computer/tech/web coming in as the top three represented industries among America’s top billionaires.  But there are also some surprises compared to last year’s list.  There are 20 newcomers to the list since the year before, thanks to the mobile payment company Square, a variety of hedge funds, as well as bigger retail names like Under Armour, Panda Express, and 5-Hour Energy.  Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs is also newly added to the top 400 list.

The Richest Americans By the Numbers:

Planning to win the lottery this year?  To become the richest American, you’d have to beat out Bill Gates at over $66 billion; but to even make the list at all, you’d still have to beat one of the 9 billionaires currently tied for last place at $1.1 billion.

Here’s what you need to know about America’s richest men and women, and some surprising details about what made them so rich to begin with:

  • The net worth of this year’s 400 richest Americans is $1.7 trillion dollars – a 13% growth in their collective wealth over the 2011 billionaires list.
  • The average net worth of these billionaires is $4.2 billion.
  • The average age of a top billionaire is 65 and three-quarters years old.

What are the Tax Rates of the Richest Americans?

IRS tax return data won’t be available for this year’s top 400 list for two years, but for 2009, the most recent year it is available, the average income tax rate paid by the Forbes 400 was 19.9%.  The Wall Street financier Steve Rattner calculated that as of 2011, the 400 richest Americans pay an average tax rate of about 18%, a large drop from the 1990s due in large part to the George Bush 2003 tax cuts.  In addition, a recent study found that from 1995 to 2007, the Forbes 400 billionaires’ incomes quadrupled while their tax rates were halved.

The above tax rates represent what billionaires are taxed on their own income, but the companies themselves are taxed too.  These corporate tax rates are a better gauge of what the companies themselves actually pay our government, and our corporate tax rate tool calculates what the top U.S. corporations are taxed.  In addition, our personal vs. corporate tool lets you pick a company to see how much you would be taxed if you were a corporation.