The world's seriously rich are getting richer - and seriously so, according to a new report commissioned by investment company Merrill Lynch.

Last year, the combined wealth of so-called high net worth individuals - people with investable assets of more than $1 million - amounted to more than $17.4 trillion.That was 5 percent more than in 1996, despite the collapse of asset values in Asian financial markets, the report said. About one-third of it was held offshore.

And the boom will continue, said the 1998 World Wealth Report, the second annual study by Merrill Lynch and management consultancy Gemini Consulting.

Over the next three years, the wealth of the mega-rich will grow by 10 percent annually, reaching $23.1 trillion at the end of the year 2000.

The report released Tuesday did not indicate whether the numbers of people who qualify as super-rich are changing, just their combined wealth.

Europeans and North Americans "still account for the lion's share of the high net worth individual market at 59 percent," the report said.

But they are slowly losing ground to the very rich from Asia and Latin America.

"Despite suffering a decline of $300 billion in the dollar value of their wealth last year," it said, Asians will account for 21 percent of the market by the year 2000, followed by Latin Americans, with 16 percent.

"In contrast, Africa will contribute only 2 percent to the high net worth individual market by 2000," it said.

The report also found that traditional, lower-yield investments in bank deposits and bonds are falling from favor as their returns decline, while equities are growing in popularity.

It said the introduction of a single European currency, the euro, will be a boon for the very rich in that region.