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  • The total number of billionaires reached 2,158 last year, up 9% from 2016, according to a new report from UBS and PwC.
  • The growth was fastest in Asia, with China minting roughly one new billionaire every three days.
  • Asian billionaires will be wealthier than their American peers in less than three years.

The rich are getting richer and more numerous.

The world added 332 billionaires last year, with their cumulative wealth increasing 19% to a record $8.9 trillion, according to an annual survey from UBS and PwC.

What's behind this phenomenon? Explosive wealth creation in China.

"China is where we're seeing unbelievable and unprecedented growth," said John Mathews, head of ultra high net worth Americas for UBS Global Wealth Management. For the first time ever, billionaire growth in Asia Pacific outpaced that of the US last year.

In 2006, there were just 16 Chinese billionaires. But in 2017, the tally hit 373 - a fifth of the global total. The US still leads regionally, with 585 billionaires, but wealth creation in the region is slowing. The US created 53 billionaires in 2017, compared with 87 in 2012.

In China, 106 people became billionaires in 2017 (although a number dropped off the list from 2016). That comes out to roughly one new billionaire every three days.

If current trends hold, Asian billionaires' wealth will surpass that of their American counterparts in three years.

Samantha Lee/Business Insider

That growth has been driven by self-made entrepreneurs in China, particularly in the technology industry.

More than 300 Chinese companies went public last year, unlocking what UBS deems "stealth wealth," the difficult-to-measure wealth of individuals in private markets with little transparency.

About 97 percent of Chinese billionaires are self-made, and, at 56 years old on average, they're about a decade younger than their North American counterparts.

US entrepreneurs could play catch-up next year, though. Mathews said major anticipated initial public offerings in 2019, including Uber, could reveal more stealth wealth, potentially adding more billionaires to the US's count. Of the 53 new billionaires in the US last year, 30 were self-made.

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