Indonesia’s rupiah trillionaires have so much money that it’s difficult to count it. Forbes came out with its annual list of the country’s richest this week, and it included many familiar faces among the archipelago’s palm oil, paper, coal and tobacco barons. Most were smiling because they are worth billions more this year than before, thanks to rising stock and commodity prices, and growing domestic demand. “At a time when most of the world’s economies are stagnating, Indonesia’s list of wealthiest individuals demonstrates the continued growth of the economy and its opening up to reward entrepreneurial talents,” said Justin Doebele, chief editorial advisor of Forbes Indonesia.
However, when journalists or analysts ask someone like Eka Tjipta Widjaja – the palm oil king worth $8 billion, according to Forbes – or Anthoni Salim – the head of the property-to-food Salim Group, worth $3.6 billion – to give their actual worth, they rarely get a number. So how accurate are these kinds of estimates? The answer is it depends – on how open the companies are, and the accuracy of the assumption behind the computations performed to reach the final figures. Comparing the Forbes Top Ten to a similar survey by Indonesia’s business magazine, Globe Asia, in June points to the guess-work involved. While both Top Tens include mostly the same names, there are sometimes huge gaps between what Forbes said an individual was worth and what Globe Asia said. The difference between the two net worth estimates was more than $1 billion for most of the top-ranked rich. Of course, the Globe survey was published five months ago, and commodity and stock price fluctuations can account for some of the difference, though it also seems unlikely those fluctuations account for all the differences. Back then, Globe estimated Achmad Hamami, head of the group which distributes Caterpillar in Indonesia, was worth $250 million; the Forbes survey this week put him at $2.2 billion. Susilo Wonowidjojo is worth $10.5 billion according to Forbes; in the older Globe survey he was pegged at about one fifth that value. When a billionaire’s companies are publicly-listed, it is relatively easy to figure their worth. The value of their shareholdings are public knowledge and their companies are required to disclose their assets and liabilities. For unlisted entities it gets tougher, particularly in Indonesia, where there are few public documents and a lot of secretive companies. It’s sometimes difficult to get even a good photo of the country’s tycoons, so trying to find out what they are worth requires some detective work.
“It is guess-work, but it is not just plucking numbers out of thin air,” said Shoeb Kagda, editor of Globe Asia. “Some of them are very shy and low-profile but there are ways” to dig up what they are worth, he said.
Forbes says it follows a strict and proven methodology to come to its numbers, and confirms with the individuals and companies involved when possible. In particular, it says it estimates the value of non-listed assets by choosing a similar listed company and extrapolating from its capitalization. Globe Asia uses its reporters and connections to get a hint at what revenues are for the non-listed companies and calculates from there. The massive difference between Globe’s and Forbes’ estimate of Mr. Hamami’s net worth, for example, could be due to the fact that his group has just started to reveal results of its coal operations, said Mr. Kagda. One thing everyone can agree upon though is that all the biggest billionaires have so much money that they have earned their spots in the spotlight. “If you are talking about someone that is worth $11 million, then $500 million here or there is an acceptable margin of error,” said Mr. Kagda.