The big day for wealth watchers is almost here. On Thursday, BRW magazine will release its annual Rich 200 edition, which promises to be one of most fascinating in years.
The headline story shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Based on what we’ve seen from the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires and the Sunday Times Rich List, Australia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs will have lost about 30% of their total wealth, or around $40 billion.
Given the carnage in equity markets and the property sector, it will be hard to find any entrepreneur who has made money in the past 12 months.
When I was editing the Rich 200 two years ago, when the economy was booming and valuations soaring, we found the members of the Rich 200 to be surprisingly willing to talk about their fortunes.
But given the environment, it’s a fair bet that the rich will be lying low this year, and valuations will be extremely difficult to frame, particularly for those entrepreneurs whose wealth is held in private assets.
In the current economic environment, entrepreneurs appear to be trying to hang on to assets as long as possible in the hope of riding out the downturn and not taking a loss. But a lack of transactions means figuring out just how much the value of assets, such as commercial property, have fallen will be very difficult.
Here are some of the things to look out for in this year’s list.
Australia’s richest person
The tussle for the title of Australia’s richest person will be extremely close between Frank Lowy and James Packer. Packer has certainly enjoyed a reasonable year, with the value of his listed investments up by about $440 million or 15% since the start of the year, while Lowy’s stake in Westfield is down by over $500 million or 22%.
The recently-published Forbes list of Australia’s 40 richest people had Packer just in front of Lowy, but Forbes tends to place less emphasis on Lowy’s private assets. These assets may just allow Lowy to take the title of Australia’s richest person on the BRW list.
The big winners
Finding winners is going to be very hard this year, but there may be some bright pockets, such as the rural sector (where land prices have been very strong) and pockets of the resources sector. The big winner on the Forbes list was mining investors Ken Talbot, whose fortune increased from $800 million in 2008 to $966 million in 2009, thanks mainly to his well-time exit from Macarthur Coal.
The biggest losers
While most entrepreneurs will find that their fortunes have fallen in the past 12 months, two of the biggest losers will be Mark Rowsthorn of port and logistics company Asciano and Terry Peabody from waste management giant Transpacific Industries.
Shares in both companies have been trashed in the past 12 months as a result of the huge debt loads they carry. As a result, the value of Rowsthorn’s stake has fallen 68% to just $94 million, while Peabody’s stake has dropped from $823 million to $184 million.
We already know a few entrepreneurs who definitely won’t be on the Rich 200, including Phil Green from Babcock & Brown and Tony D’Antonio and Peter Hosking from tool company GMC.
But who else enters the departure lounge will depend very much on how far the cut-off for the list falls. In the past three years the cut-off has soared from $130 million to $200 million, but it looks almost certain to fall this year.
The list of newcomers to the Rich 200 is always one of the most interesting things to watch. This year’s biggest debut is likely to come from Paul Fudge, the former rag trader who made $660 million in one day when he sold a coal-seam gas exploration permit to Origin Energy.
Searching for green shoots
The rich are typically very good at spotting trends before the rest of us — as proof, just take a look at how many entrepreneurs sold out just before the financial crisis began (John van Lieshout, John Kinghorn and Lang Walker are all great examples).
This year, it might pay to look at the sectors the rich are targeting in the midst of the downturn. In the last few months, cashed-up entrepreneurs have been scooping up property bargains, and a number have been buying shares in the multitude of rights issues that have flooded the markets.
Are these the green shoots of recovery we have been looking for?
The Pratt question
The biggest departure from the list with be Richard Pratt, who for so long has been ranked as Australia’s third richest person.
BRW has a number of options with the Pratt fortune — keep it all in the name of the new family head, Anthony Pratt; split it among the three Pratt siblings and Richard’s wife Jeannie; or simply go with a “Pratt family” entry.
While the latter option is the most likely, the clear way in which the fortune has been divided up gives BRW the option of splitting the empire into four.
James Thomson is a former editor of the Rich 200 and current editor of Smart Company.