New York (CNN/Money) -
Is Bill Gates still the world's wealthiest person?
On Sunday, April 4, the Reuters news service published a story crediting IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with a fortune of more than $53 billion, exceeding Gates's $46.6 billion net worth.
The story was based on a Swedish TV news report, which in turn cited a soon-to-be-released article from Veckans Affaerer, a Stockholm-based business weekly.
By Monday, April 5, the story had been quickly debunked. IKEA spokeswoman Marianne Barner stated strongly that the report was just wrong, according to the Associated Press.
She contended that the magazine simply estimated the value of the entire company and assigned it to Kamprad. But the furniture maven hasn't fully owned IKEA since 1982, when he donated ownership to the Dutch Stichting INGKA Foundation.
Luisa Kroll, a Forbes associate editor who helps put together the magazine's list of the world's wealthiest people, agrees that the accounting is way off.
"Kamprad has several holding companies that own stakes in each other," she points out, suggesting the Veckans Affaerer analysis included incorrect "double counting" of assets.
Forbes editor Kroll stands by her magazine's calculations, which put Kamprad's wealth at $18.5 billion, thirteenth on the 2004 list of the world's wealthiest, which came out in February.
She does say that Kamprad's assets have grown steadily in dollar terms. "We even thought he might slip into the top ten this year," says Kroll, "but not up to number one."
Maybe it's Buffett
The report of a decline in Gates' relative standing did perhaps contain a kernel of truth. A new coronation was the right idea; the Swedes just picked the wrong ascendant to the throne.
Forbes handicaps the wealth stakes almost continuously, according to Kroll. While the published rankings are based on where each individual's wealth stands on a specific date (February 6 this year), each fortune varies with every up or downtick of the stock market.
In Gates's case, that means because his Microsoft holdings fell by about 4.5 percent between February 6 and April 2, his assets could have been reduced to somewhere around $45 billion.
Meanwhile, the stock of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, rose about 4.4 percent. Buffett was already second on the Forbes list at $42.9 billion, and the vast bulk of his assets are in the form of Berkshire stock. The gains in Berkshire's price may have pushed Buffett's wealth above $45 billion.
"For a few minutes on Friday (April 2)," says Kroll, "Buffett may have passed Gates."
In any event, the two men are now almost certainly running neck and neck
If Buffett does overtake Gates this year and hold the lead until next February, it would mark the first second-place finish for Gates since 1997, when the software tycoon lost out to the Sultan of Brunei.
Wherever Gates winds up next February, he should retain one distinction for a very long time.
When Microsoft stock peaked in 1999, Gates had assets of more than $90 billion. That means he has lost about $45 billion, more money than anyone in history.