Berlusconi Tumbles Down Forbes' Billionaire List as He Fights Legal, Political Battles

Silvio Berlusconi regret - P 2013
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It's the fourth consecutive year the beleaguered Berlusconi has slid down the list, dragged mostly by the slumping share price for Mediaset.

ROME – While Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi battles to maintain political relevance and stay out of jail, his status among the richest people in the world is already starting to slip away, according to the latest list of world billionaires released by Forbes.

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Make no mistake about it, the 76-year-old Berlusconi is still rich, with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes to be worth $6.2 billion. But Berlusconi -- a media tycoon whose holdings include three national television networks in Italy and one in Spain, plus the Medusa film production and distribution house -- slid further down the Forbes list for the fourth consecutive year, landing on this year’s list in 194th place. He now ranks only seventh among Italians.

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That's a far cry from his peak on the list in 2005, when his personal fortune was nearly twice as large ($12.1 billion), and he was the richest Italian and the 25th richest person in the world.

Since 2009, when he was the 70th richest person in the world, Berlusconi’s rank slid to 74th, then to No. 118 in 2011 and No. 169 in 2012, before the latest rank of No. 194.

“Berlusconi has had to spend a lot of money on lawyers and lawsuits, and now he has annual alimony payments of €36 million ($47 million),” said Antonio Figo, an economic analyst with Hildebrandt and Ferrar investment bankers. “But the biggest culprits contributing to his fall on the charts is a slumping stock price in Mediaset...and the fact that everyone else is getting richer.”

Mediaset’s stock price has taken a beating in recent years, setting new all-time lows several times late in 2012 before rebounding slightly so far this year. The company has suffered from declining ad revenue in its main markets, rising production and acquisition costs for content, a costly battle against Sky-Italia (a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), and some investment decisions that have not paid off, most notably a big bet on Dutch reality television producer Endemol, which Mediaset ended up backing out of last year at a big loss.

Berlusconi’s leadership of Mediaset, which the mogul founded in 1978, has been part-time at best in recent years, as he has fought a series of legal battles and maintained political ambitions. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years behind bars for tax fraud in connection with Mediaset, and prosecutors have asked for an additional year in jail in a wiretap case related to Il Giornale, the Milan-based newspaper controlled by Berlusconi and his younger brother Paolo Berlusconi. The elder Berlusconi remains on trial in another case alleging abuse of power and paying an under-age girl for sex.

The controversial Berlusconi was in December ordered by courts to agree to a massive alimony payment as part of his divorce from the former Veronica Lario, just as he announced plans to wed Naples dancer Francesca Pasquale, a woman 49 years his junior.

Despite all that, Berlusconi remains a key player in Italy’s latest political game, after Italy’s national elections Feb. 24-25 failed to yield a winner. The coalition from pre-election favorite Pier Luigi Bersani narrowly edged out Berlusconi in the popular vote, but both coalitions lack the seats in the Senate to form a government. Talks are ongoing, but with the three main blocks -- Bersani, Berlusconi and comedian/activist Beppe Grillo -- unable to cobble together enough support without help from one of the others, the stalemate seems likely to continue, with new elections in a matter of weeks a growing possibility.

If Berlusconi defies the odds to become prime minister, it could be good news for his ranking on Forbes’ billionaire list: Over the last dozen years of the rankings, Berlusconi has ranked an average of more than 50 slots higher when he has been prime minister compared to the years when he was merely a private citizen.