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Combined wealth of globe's richest individuals rises at fastest pace in 7 years

How much would the sum of all the world's wealthiest people got together and pooled their assets into one lump be?

According to a report released Wednesday, the combined wealth of the globe's richest individuals rose more than 11 percent to a grand total of $37.2 trillion (27.68 trillion EUR) last year.

The rise marks the first double-digit increase in seven years.

Thanks to a strong global economy, 9.5 million people held at least $1 million (740,000 EUR) in financial assets - excluding the value of their primary homes - in 2006, up from 8.7 million in 2005, according to the 11th annual World Wealth Report compiled by Merrill Lynch & Co. and the consulting firm Capgemini Group.

Those accumulated trillions give these individuals control of about a quarter of the world's total wealth, or nearly three times the United States' gross domestic product.

If the rich decided to combine their assets and split the money evenly among all 9.5 million of them, they'd each be left with nearly $3,915,789 (2,913,967 EUR). That would be enough for each person to buy about a dozen Rolls Royce luxury cars, or more than 7,000 of Apple Inc.'s new iPhones.

Worldwide, gross-domestic-product growth and accelerating market capitalization - or the value of corporations' outstanding shares in the global market - fueled the generation of wealth, the report found.

Despite last year's strong international economy, the world's wealthiest shifted their money away from "alternative investments" - such as hedge funds, foreign currencies and commodities - in favor of high returns on real estate ventures, the study stated.

The investment strategies of millionaires may not suit those with fewer assets to spare, however, Robert McCann, president of Merrill Lynch's Global Private Client Group, said Wednesday after a press conference outlining the report.

"The world is becoming more and more global," he said. "That's an interesting thing to think about, whether you have $10,000 (7,442 EUR) or $10 million (7.4 million EUR)."

The expansion of the world's richest class was the strongest in both India and Singapore, the report found, which each boasted increases of more than 20 percent. Solid investor cash-flow into riskier corners of both countries' emerging markets generated much of the gains, according to the report.

Driving the growth of many millionaires' fortunes was the growing class of the super-rich, individuals whose assets exceed $30 million (22.3 million EUR), the report stated. Their ranks also grew more than 11 percent last year to 94,970, with a combined wealth of $13.1 trillion (9.75 trillion EUR).

Topping the list in both in the number of wealthy individuals and the sum of their accumulated assets was the United States, fueled by gross-domestic-product growth, the report found. Japan ranked second.

Investments by the wealthy in North America dipped in favor of allocations to Europe, which enjoyed its best performance since 2000.

In the annual study's first breakdown of philanthropic giving, individuals worth $1 million (740,000 EUR) or more donated an estimated total of $285 billion (212.1 billion EUR) in 2006.

Charitable giving has become more important in millionaires' overall investment strategies in recent years, Ileana van der Linde, a principal in Capgemini's wealth management practice, said Wednesday.

"It seems to be much more about leaving a legacy and having influence in the things that they care about," she said.

Entrepreneurs donated an average of $232,206 (172,798 EUR), more than double the amount dedicated to philanthropy by those who inherited their riches.

If all ranks of the world's wealthiest decided to give away their combined assets, they could pay off the U.S. federal deficit, 250 times over. Or they could write a check for nearly $33,000 (24,557 EUR) to every resident of India, though some investors there are faring well on their own.

Wealth among the world's rich is expected to hit $51.6 trillion (38.4 trillion EUR) by 2011, growing at an annual rate of 6.8 percent, the study stated.

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