Hey, did you see that item the other day which says the ranks of the world's millionaires increased in 2002, but at a slower pace than in the past because of weak global economies coupled with stock market declines? Did it choke you up?

Actually, a new study called "World Wealth Report, " prepared by my college friends at Merrill Lynch together with the Cap Gemini Ernst & Young consulting firm, says that there were 7.3 million people in the world with financial assets of $1 million or more at the end of 2002, up by 2.1 percent from the previous year. The increase, down from 3 percent in 2001, was pegged as the lowest rise in the survey's seven-year history.

That troubles me a mite, primarily because I'm not on that list.

The number of millionaires dropped last year in North America, which includes Canada and the United States, as well as in Latin America. On the other hand, the wealth these people have amassed jumped by 3.6 percent in 2002 to a tidy $27.2 trillion. Compare this with a growth of 3 percent in 2001 to $26.2 trillion. Hmmmm, so, what's this all mean?

Well, for one, the financial gurus (which includes brokers and bankers) scrutinize these figures because individuals with such a high net worth tend to be their best customers, even though these people do represent only a fraction of the world's 6.3 billion inhabitants. However, financial planners should keep a steady eye on those numbers, as well.

My friend, Jim Gorman, who heads Merrill Lynch's private client group, says that the fact there were more millionaires in the world despite global economic difficulties "reflects the resilience of this very attractive market segment." So, what's in store for the future?

The study predicts that the wealth of these people will increase an average of 7 percent a year over the next five years to $38 trillion by the end of 2007.

The Merrill Lynch people point out that wealthy individuals were simply not badly affected by the stock market debacle because they were considered to be rather conservative investors. In fact, the typical high net worth individual last year had 30 percent invested in fixed-income instruments (bonds) and 25 percent in cash, with only 20 percent in equities. Other holdings included 15 percent in real estate and 10 percent in alternative investments--most notably, hedge funds. This obviously shows that a "properly diversified portfolio is resilient even in the most difficult market environments," notes Gorman.

Those at Cap Gemini claim that the wealthy were helped along in both preserving and increasing their assets by an average of seven to nine financial advisers, from planners to accountants to brokers to attorneys.

Incidentally, even if you or your clients in this kind of tax bracket, you can still benefit from the growing amount of financial data available on the Internet. Listen, the industry continues to move downstream, clearly heading toward the smaller investor with all kinds of tools, products, and services.

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