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Hedge funds and private equity funds, in fact, are not regulated at all by the SEC, and they are taxed at capital gains rates that are half the level of income-tax rates paid by other billionaires - both key to the success and enormous wealth they’ve amassed, the analysts said.

Technology stars

Technology is another area that has benefited from minimal regulation and taxes in the past two decades. Congress moved quickly to exempt Internet transactions from federal taxes when the new communications medium emerged in the 1990s, and it until recently encouraged the issuance of stock options by technology firms through lenient tax and regulatory policies.

The result was a crop of technology entrepreneurs that continues to dominate the list of the top 20 American billionaires, including Microsoft’s Mr. Gates, co-founder Paul Allen and CEO Steven Ballmer; Oracle’s Mr. Ellison; and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Mr. Gates, whose Microsoft stock has given him a net worth of $59 billion, was peppered by critics for not giving much to charity when he emerged as the richest man in the world in the 1990s. It prompted a stunning gesture that started a trend among billionaires: The software tycoon established the Gates Foundation and donated more than half his wealth to it, which last month also became his full-time occupation.

The move was reminiscent of the major philanthropic trend started by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller a century earlier.

The unprecedented resources of Mr. Gates’ largest-ever private charity were greatly augmented last year when Mr. Buffett, the world’s second-richest man, decided to contribute a sizable share of his $53 billion fortune to Mr. Gates’ foundation.

The foundation has ambitious goals to, among other things, eradicate AIDS and malaria - the leading cause of death among Third World children - through the creation of vaccines. In the United States, the foundation has contributed billions of dollars to improving education for poor children to bolster their chances of success.

“There’s been an explosion of philanthropy,” said Peter Frumkin, a University of Texas professor who noted that private giving now outpacing federal government discretionary spending on social welfare.

“We have a very supportive tax environment for philanthropy,” which allows billionaires not only to keep a large share of their wealth through low income taxes and capital-gains taxes, but adds an incentive to give it away before they die to avoid estate taxes on their heirs.

“The estate tax moves money aggressively into philanthropy,” he said.

“Clearly, there is more money in philanthropy today, and there will be even more tomorrow” as more billionaires join the trend, said Michael Edwards, a Ford Foundation director and former World Bank official.

“The new philanthropists have larger and louder ambitions” than their 20th-century counterparts and want to get short-term results, he said. But so far they’ve not achieved much of the quick success they sought - perhaps because they are tackling intransigent problems and typically avoid getting involved in the political fray that could be unavoidable if they want to advance their causes, he said.

Judith Samuelson, executive director at the Aspen Institute, said foundations created by wealthy philanthropists can promote much good in the world, but they rarely have as great an impact on society and the economy as the business ventures that made them rich in the first place.

“Henry Ford was a great philanthropist, but his real legacy is the automobile,” she said. “We need to focus on how people go about creating their wealth” and not just how they spend money, sometimes trying to rectify the problems their business empires created, she said.

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