Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have long battled for the top spot among the world's wealthiest. According to Forbes, Gates tops the list this year, with $79.2 billion in net worth, followed closely by Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim, with $77.1 billion, and Warren Buffett, with $72.7 billion.
Buffett's and Gates' wealth comes from the respective enterprises they founded, Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft. While those companies are two of the most valuable on the planet, they are far from the fastest growing -- which means a new face may soon own the crown of the world's richest. With that in mind, we asked three top Fool contributors who the wealthiest person in the world would be in 10 years. Here's what they had to say:
Jeremy Bowman (Jeff Bezos): It's clear that the fastest-growing wealth in the world is coming from the tech sector. Companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have skyrocketed in value in recent years, while start-ups like Uber are already worth $50 billion. But I think the person who has the best chance of topping the world's richest list in 10 years is Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos.
Bezos is already No. 6 on the Forbes real-time list in net worth, and no other founder or chief of a fast-growing company is ahead of him, nor is anyone in the top five younger. Amazon today is worth nearly $250 billion, and Bezos owns around 83 million shares of the company, giving him a net worth of $46 billion, according to Forbes.
But the biggest reason Bezos could one day be the richest person in the world is the growth potential of Amazon. The company wowed the market in its recent quarter, posting 81% sales growth in its cloud-computing division. Meanwhile, Prime membership has soared as the company continues to stuff its loyalty program with even more benefits, which has led to steady growth in its e-commerce division.
Amazon continues to innovate and introduce new products, which should ensure continued growth. In 10 years, it's very likely that the company will have a leading, if not dominant, position in major growth categories like e-commerce, online media, and cloud computing.
With his current ownership percentage, Bezos would be the richest person in the world in today's dollars if the stock doubled. Of course, other billionaires are likely to see their wealth accumulate during that time, but Amazon's stock could easily triple in the next 10 years, if not exceed that mark.
Tim Beyers (Elon Musk): Figuring out how to harness renewable energy cheaply, and at scale, may not be as important as curing cancer or delivering clean water to those who lack it, but it's also not far down the list of this century's must-have innovations. All signs point to Elon Musk as the one who will solve this equation once and for all.
In May, the Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) co-founder and chief executive unveiled the Powerwall battery system for storing up to 10kWh of solar energy for powering everyday items. Within a decade, that same technology could evolve to the point where millions of homes around the world are able to decouple from the grid. Tesla Energy, as manufacturer and distributor, could earn billions from the shift.
Solar City (NASDAQ:SCTY.DL) should also benefit, because its solar cells could be made to deliver excess photovoltaic energy directly to a battery for later use. Can you imagine? Every one of the 1 million-plus customers that the company aims to serve by 2018 could also be a Tesla customer, and vice versa. Economies of scale don't come much bigger than that.
In a way, it reminds me of the integrated advantages that made Bill Gates one of the world's richest people. Think about it: Windows helped unite dozens of PC manufacturers, accelerating the personal computer revolution. Microsoft grew to be one of the world's largest and most important companies as a result.
Musk is profiting from the same dynamic, using Tesla and Solar City to build the infrastructure necessary to accelerate the clean energy revolution. Ten years from now -- when much of the work is complete -- I expect him to have been as richly rewarded for his efforts as Gates was in his heyday.
Alex Dumortier: I have no idea who the richest man will be in 10 years. However, I think there's a distinct possibility that the person will be from mainland China. (For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to exclude Hong Kong.)
Less than five-and-a-half years ago, in Forbes' 2010 list of billionaires worldwide, there was not a single Chinese billionaire ranked in the top 250. Just three years later, Forbes' 2013 list showed one Chinese national in the top 100: Zong Qinghou (with a rank of 86), the founder and CEO of China's leading beverages company, Hangzhou Wahaha Group, with a net worth of $11.6 billion. Within the top 250 in 2013, there were nine.
Today, Forbes' real-time ranking of billionaires has four Chinese among the richest 50 people in the world, with 20 among the top 250. I'm sensing a trend here.
In which sector have the largest fortunes been created at the fastest rate during the past decade in the U.S.? Answer: Technology. Think Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (currently No. 10 on Forbes' real-time ranking), and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (No. 17 and No. 19, respectively) .
Consider that, in 2008, roughly half (51%) of China's bachelor's degrees were awarded in science and engineering. Given the size of China's domestic market, its burgeoning middle class, and the development of its capital markets, the opportunities for wealth creation in technology -- and not just technology -- are fabulous in China.