Last year, for the first time ever, Asia had more millionaires than North America, according to a new study. According to the World Wealth Report from Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management, North America’s millionaire population declined slightly to 3.4 million in 2011 while Asia’s grew by 1.6 percent, giving them slightly more than 3.4 million.
Globally, there are now about 11 million individuals with investible assets of $1 million or more (not including their primary residence).
Granted, on a country-by-country basis, the United States still rules the world when it comes to wealthy individuals. Last year the country was home to 3.067 million millionaires. And North America as a whole still had more total wealth held by millionaires: $11.4 trillion compared to Asia’s $10.7 trillion. RBC defines Asia as China, Japan, India and more than a dozen other countries.
Yet Asia’s millionaire growth is part of a larger transformation of the world’s wealth. Europe and the United States are becoming Old Money. Asia is the New Money.
The New New Money, meanwhile, is in Latin America, Africa and other millionaire frontiers. The population of millionaires grew by 2.7 percent in the Middle East and 3.9 percent in Africa. Latin America posted the strongest millionaire growth at 5.4 percent, though it still has only 500,000 millionaires.
“It is significant that for the first time this year there are now more high-net-worth individuals in Asia-Pacific than in any other region,” said George Lewis, Group Head of RBC Wealth Management.
While Asia can celebrate its millionaire market share, the world’s wealthy didn’t have much to cheer about last year. The global millionaire population remained flat and their total wealth fell for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis.
The total wealth of the world’s millionaires fell 1.7 percent to $42 trillion.
For those who think that the rich have only gotten richer through the recession, consider this statistic: on an inflation adjusted basis, America’s millionaire population has fallen over the past five years. It has been the lost half-decade for millionaires.
The uber-wealthy have seen the biggest drops. The number of individuals worth $30 million or more fell 2.5 percent globally – compared to a decline of only 1 percent for those worth $5 million to $10 million. The number of people worth $1 million to $5 million actually increased last year globally by 1.1 percent.
The declines are largely driven by stock-market performance and slower GDP growth around the world, according to RBC.
Not that anyone should feel sorry for this group, of course. The world’s 11 million millionaires control more wealth than the total 99 percent of the U.S. population.
Yet RBC said the outlook for the wealthy this year is “uncertain and will be driven by economic and political uncertainties,” including the Euro crisis and headwinds in mature markets.
What do you think will happen with the millionaire population in 2012?
-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter: @robtfrank