The annual Forbes billionaire face-off is back. And this year the billionaires are back, too.
In 2009, a financial bloodbath slashed the assets of the world's wealthiest in half. It was literally a billionaire bust.
In 2010? A revival.
"I can't tell you who the richest person is the world is yet, but I can tell you it's been one of the most closely watched races that we've ever seen. Two people were very much neck and neck," says Matt Miller, Global Wealth Editor for Forbes.
After 24 issues of the magazine's billionaires franchise, Miller says, this is by far the most stressful. "Now assets are much harder to value, and as a result, there's a lot more math, a lot more talking about valuations that go on and that adds stress to the reporters."
The annual ranking of billionaires takes months to compile, but can literally come down to the wire. The team at Forbes works non-stop, and reporter Keren Blankfeld, says she's lucky to sleep. "Basically [we] have very understanding families and friends."
Another reporter, Steve Bertoni, describes his job as schizophrenic. "One minute you'll be working on a Silicon Valley billionaire, the next minute you're trying to hunt down a Texas oil man."
Miller, who oversees the whole process, compares the back and forth between his reporters and the billionaires to a poker game. "You've got to bluff sometimes. You've got to show all your cards sometimes. It really depends on who you're dealing with."
And sometimes that means calling competitors, other billionaires and even ex-wives, says Bertoni.
Other times, according the Miller, the reporters have to deal with anonymous sources who conjure up sketchy means of communicating with the team. "About 3 months ago we were reporting on an American billionaire in California, and someone found out we were doing some digging on this guy. We don't know who it was, but they set up a fake hotmail account and sent one of the reporters an email saying, 'I'll answer questions for about 3 hours, but in 3 hours this account won't exist anymore.'"
Despite the veil of secrecy around the billionaires' finances, Duncan Greenberg, who covers the hedge fund managers and private equity firm owners, says the billionaires he follows are actually very down to earth.
"People like to talk about these masters of the universe, but that applies more to investment bankers and other people on Wall Street. And less so to some of these hedge fund managers who went into that business so that they could stay out of the public eye."
While the usual suspects are almost always in the running for top dog—Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Bill Gates—topping the list with some of the most impressive comebacks are, in fact, the hedge fund honchos. They have have more than made up for losses suffered in 2008. In some cases, they are even wealthier than they were three years ago.
Many of this year's richest have stock prices and company valuations to thank, but not all fortunes were made on Wall Street. The Forbes' team found some new energy billionaires here in the U.S.
However, the list does reflect the activities of markets around the world. Billionaires are bouncing back from countries like Russia and India, making the comeback story this year an international one—especially in Asia. The region will add a surprising number of newcomers. According to Miller, "a shocking number—much more than most people would anticipate."
Forbes' 2010 list of the world's richest people will be revealed at 6pm ET tonight.