Who wants to be a millionaire?

The number of "dollar millionaires" in the Czech Republic is on the rise. There are now about 11,000 Czechs with liquid assets exceeding $1 million dollars, about 1,000 more than there were last year, according to a new study.

According to a new report by Cap Gemini SA and investment bank Merrill Lynch & Co., the number of financial millionaires in the United States grew 14 percent last year, that's the highest rate in the world. There were 2.27 million people in the U.S. with at least a $1 million dollars in the bank or otherwise readily on hand.

The study, known as the "World Wealth Report", doesn't list the names of the wealthy people, although international media were quick to point out that eight of the world's 10 richest billionaires, including legendary the investor Warren Buffett and the founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., Bill Gates, come from the U.S.

The survey also doesn't detail what is driving the growth.

But it did note that Europe is still the region with the highest number of dollar millionaires, with about 2.6 million people worth at least $1 million bucks. And within Europe, the survey shows that wealth among investors grew most rapidly in Spain, the Czech Republic, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The head of the local branch of Cap Gemini, Patrik Horny, told reporters upon the launch of the report in Prague on Wednesday, that the Czech Republic was a regional star.

"The Czech Republic is among the top 10 countries in the world as far as the growth of the number of rich individuals and investors are concerned. In Europe, only Spain is ahead of the Czech Republic, which posted an exceptional economic growth. But all of the other countries which are ahead of the Czech Republic are North American or Asian."

The number of millionaires in Britain rose 8 percent, for example, but the elite in the Czech Republic fared even better. With 11,000 Czechs now among the ranks of the world's "dollar millionaires" - 12 percent more than in 2002 - the Czech Republic posted the sixth-largest growth in the world, the Cap Gemini/Merrill Lynch report said.

In all likelihood there are even more Czechs lurking about counting their cool millions, as the study does not cover those who have transferred their assets to tax havens in places like the Bahamas.

The number of dollar millionaires is calculated on the basis of available information from banks, capital markets, and the development of the individual economies in the 68 countries surveyed, which together represent about 98 percent of the world's wealth.

The dismal performance of the U.S. dollar in part explains the rise in the number of dollar millionaires in some parts of the world. Just four years ago, a Czech had to squirrel away assets worth over 40 million to join the elite club, but last year, thanks to the weak dollar, 27 million crowns was enough.

But Mr Horny said the exchange rate wasn't the driving factor in the Czech Republic. Here, the rich are getting richer regardless of the strength of the crown versus the dollar, he said, mostly by trading in stocks and bonds, real estate, and through earning interest on deposits.

Mr Horny said the trend was expected to continue in the near future as the Czech economy is still growing.

"We are expecting a strong and stable growth in the number of millionaires in the Czech Republic. I don't think the conditions will change in the coming years."

But if the number of Czech dollar millionaires is rising, so is the number of people tightening their belts. According to the Czech Statistical Office, some 133,000 households, or 392,000 individuals, mostly blue-collar workers and the unemployed, are living below the poverty level.

A poor family is defined as having a gross income of just over 31,000 crowns in the full year of 2002, mostly in social allowances. That means almost 400,000 people in the Czech Republic are eking out a living on less than 2600 crowns per month, or about $25 dollars a week.

In other words, for every Czech "dollar millionaire", there are at least 36 people living in poverty.