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Institute for Policy Studies

Report Info

  • Released December 4, 2000
Global Economy » Report

Top 200: The Rise of Corporate Global Power

As citizen movements the world over launch activities to counter aspects of economic globalization, the growing power of private corporations is becoming a central issue.

Key Findings

  1. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries (based on a comparison of corporate sales and country GDPs).

  2. The Top 200 corporations' sales are growing at a faster rate than overall global economic activity. Between 1983 and 1999, their combined sales grew from the equivalent of 25.0 percent to 27.5 percent of World GDP.

  3. The Top 200 corporations' combined sales are bigger than the combined economies of all countries minus the biggest 10.

  4. The Top 200s' combined sales are 18 times the size of the combined annual income of the 1.2 billion people (24 percent of the total world population) living in ''severe'' poverty.

  5. While the sales of the Top 200 are the equivalent of 27.5 percent of world economic activity, they employ only 0.78 percent of the world's workforce.

  6. Between 1983 and 1999, the profits of the Top 200 firms grew 362.4 percent, while the number of people they employ grew by only 14.4 percent.

  7. A full 5 percent of the Top 200s' combined workforce is employed by Wal-Mart, a company notorious for union-busting and widespread use of part-time workers to avoid paying benefits. The discount retail giant is the top private employer in the world, with 1,140,000 workers, more than twice as many as No. 2, DaimlerChrysler, which employs 466,938.

  8. U.S. corporations dominate the Top 200, with 82 slots (41 percent of the total). Japanese firms are second, with only 41 slots.

  9. Of the U.S. corporations on the list, 44 did not pay the full standard 35 percent federal corpo-rate tax rate during the period 1996-1998. Seven of the firms actually paid less than zero in federal income taxes in 1998 (because of rebates). These include: Texaco, Chevron, PepsiCo, Enron, Worldcom, McKesson and the world's biggest corporationGeneral Motors. 10. Between 1983 and 1999, the share of total sales of the Top 200 made up by service sector corporations increased from 33.8 percent to 46.7 percent. Gains were particularly evident in financial services and telecommunications sectors, in which most countries have pursued deregulation.

I. Introduction

In 1952, General Motors CEO Charles Wilson made the famous statement that ''What is good for General Motors is good for the country.''1 During the past decade and a half, General Motors and other global corporations have obtained much of what they claimed was good for them. They have succeeded in obtaining trade and investment liberalization policies that provide global firms considerable new freedoms to pursue profits internationally. They have also persuaded governments to take a generally hands-off approach to corporate monopolies, claiming that mega-mergers are needed for firms to compete in global markets.

This study examines the economic and political power of the world's top 200 corporations.2 Led by General Motors, these are the firms that are driving the process of corporate globalization and arguably benefiting the most from it. The report then examines the extent to which these firms are fulfilling the second half of Charles Wilson's promise by providing ''what's good for the country'' and global society in general. The conclusion of our analysis is that widespread trade and investment liberalization have contributed to a climate in which dominant corporations are enjoying increasing levels of economic and political clout that are out of balance with the tangible benefits they provide to society.

The study reinforces a strong public distrust of the economic and political power of corporations. In September 2000, Business Week magazine released a Business Week/Harris Poll which showed that between 72 and 82 percent of Americans agree that ''Business has gained too much power over too many aspects of American life.''3 In the same poll, 74 percent of Americans agreed with Vice President Al Gore's criticism of ''a wide range of large corporations, including big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs.''' And, 74-82 percent agreed that big companies have too much influence over ''government policy, politicians, and policy-makers in Washington.''

II. Overview of the Top 200

U.S. firms lead the pack

Top U.S. firms faced stiff competition from Japanese corporations throughout much of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1995, Japanese and U.S. firms were nearly tied in the number of corporations on the Top 200 list, with 58 and 59, respectively. Because the Japanese economy has been in stagnation for nearly a decade, U.S. corporations are once again dominant, comprising 41 percent of the Top 200 in 1999. The countries with the most corporations on the Top 200 list are the United States (82), Japan (41), Germany (20), and France (17) (see Table 1).

Fewer firms outside the industrial giants

In 1999, South Korea was the only country with a corporation on the Top 200 list outside North America, Japan, and Europe. In 1983, Brazil, Israel, South Africa, and India also had firms on the list. The merger boom of the past two decades, particularly among U.S. firms but also in Europe, has further concentrated economic power in companies based in the leading industrial economies. For example, two of the top five firms in 1999 were the products of megamergers: Exxon Mobil (No. 2) and DaimlerChrysler (No. 5).

Services on the rise

The types of firms in the Top 200 also reflect trends in the global economy. During the past decade and a half, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have promoted reforms to lift controls on investment in banking, telecommunications, and other services, opening new markets for the global giants in these sectors. Hence, the former dominance of manufacturing and natural resource-based corporations among the Top 200 has eroded. Between 1983 and 1999, the share of total sales of the Top 200 made up by service corporations increased from 33.8 percent to 46.7 percent. One major firm, General Electric, helped bolster the service sector component of the list. While GE is best known for appliances, its financial services division has grown so large (at least half of sales) that the company has shifted from the manufacturing to the services category.

Concentration

In 1999, more than half the sales of the Top 200 were in just 4 economic sectors: financial services (14.5 percent), motor vehicles and parts (12.7 percent), insurance (12.4 percent), and retailing/ wholesaling (11.3 percent).2

Stability at the top

Despite some noteworthy shifts, more than half of the firms that were on the Top 200 list in 1983 made the cut again in 1999. Returnees totaled 103, although in 25 cases they were listed under a different name, due to mergers, spin-offs, and name changes. The most stunning ascendance among the Top 200 firms is that of Wal-Mart. In 1983, the retail giant's sales were $4.7 billion far below the Top 200 threshold. By 1999, they had climbed to $166.8 billion, making Wal-Mart the second largest firm in the world.

III. Power of the Top 200

A. Economic Clout

Top 200 vs. Countries

Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries (based on a comparison of corporate sales and country GDPs) (See Table 2). To put this in perspective, General Motors is now bigger than Denmark; DaimlerChrysler is bigger than Poland; Royal Dutch/Shell is bigger than Venezuela; IBM is bigger than Singapore; and Sony is bigger than Pakistan.

The 1999 sales of each of the top five corporations (General Motors, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Ford Motor, and DaimlerChrysler) are bigger than the GDP's of 182 countries.

The Top 200 corporations' combined sales are bigger than the combined economies of all countries minus the biggest 10. 4

Top 200 growing faster than rest of the world

The Top 200 corporations' sales are growing at a faster rate than overall global economic activity. Between 1983 and 1999, their combined sales grew from the equivalent of 25.0% to 27.5% of World GDP.

Top 200 vs. The World's Poorest

The economic clout of the Top 200 is particularly staggering compared to that of the poorest segment of the world's humanity. The Top 200s' combined sales are 18 times the size of the combined annual income of the 1.2 billion people (24 percent of the total world population) living in ''severe'' poverty (defined by the World Bank as those surviving on less than $1 per day).

B. Political Clout

Campaign contributions

The 82 U.S. companies on the Top 200 list made contributions to 2000 election campaigns through political action committees (not including soft money donations) that totaled $33,045,832. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, corporations in general outspent labor unions by a ratio of about 15-to-1. The group also found that candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives who outspent their opponents were victorious in 94 percent of their races. Unfortunately, campaign contribution data for non-U.S. firms is not available.

Lobbying

Of course global corporations also spend massive amounts each year influencing the political system through lobbying. The exact amount spent on these activities is not known, but of the Top 200 firms, 94 maintain ''government relations'' offices located on or within a few blocks of the lobbying capital of the world Washington, DC's K Street Corridor.

USTR Inc.

Campaign contributions and lobbying are only the most visible example of corporate political clout. For example, officials with the U.S. Trade Representative's (USTR) Office, who are responsible for negotiating international trade and investment agreements, routinely state that their primary responsibility is to represent the interests of U.S. industry, rather than all Americans affected by trade deals. This in spite of the fact that the USTR, upon its creation in 1960, was deliberately placed in the White House, rather than the Commerce Department, in order to prevent it from being overly influenced by business interests. In addition, trade negotiators are required to meet with nongovernmental advisory committees, but these are overwhelmingly dominated by representatives of large corporations. Recently, the U.S. government went a step further and allowed representatives from corporations such as AT&T and IBM to join the official delegation in hemispheric talks on electronic commerce in the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is due to be finalized by 2005.

Transparency

The political influence of top firms is also evident in the scarcity of publicly available information on their activities. Leading corporations have fiercely opposed attempts to require them to achieve a higher level of transparency. Just a few examples of information that U.S. firms are not required to reveal to the American public:

  • a breakdown of their employees by country

  • toxic emissions at overseas plants

  • locations of overseas plants or contractors

  • wage rates at overseas facilities

  • layoffs and the reasons for layoffs

In most cases, collecting company-specific data in countries outside the United States is even more difficult.

IV. Contributions of the Top 200

This section looks at the contributions the Top 200 corporations make to society in terms of jobs and taxes. This is not to deny that these firms may influence our lives in many other ways. Particularly in the United States and other rich nations, it is difficult to go through a day without direct contact with many of these companies, whether you are watching a movie, shopping in a super-market, driving a car, or depositing a check.

Nevertheless, given their extreme levels of economic and political power, it is important to take a hard look at whether these corporate giants are indeed upholding their end of the social compact. The corporations themselves, when lobbying for policies to lift barriers to trade and investment, have promised that they will lead not only to improved consumer goods and services but also to significant job creation and an overall improvement in social welfare. It seems only fair that the public should be able to expectat a minimumthat these colossal firms be major providers of employment opportunities and that they bear their share of the tax burden.

A. Jobs

Sales vs. Workers

While the sales of the Top 200 are the equivalent of 27.5% of world economic activity, these firms employ only a tiny fraction of the world's workers. In 1999, they employed a combined total of 22,682,166 workers, which is 0.78% of the world's workforce.

Profit vs. Employment Growth

Between 1983 and 1999, the number of people employed by Top 200 firms grew 14.4%, an increase that is dwarfed by the firms' 362.4% profit growth over this period. Corporate analysts may see the dramatic increase in the ratio between profits and employees as a positive sign of increased efficiency. The growing gap between profits and payrolls is at least partly the result of technological changes that has allowed firms to produce more with less people. Automation is not always a negative development, especially in the case of jobs that are dangerous or otherwise undesirable. However, another factor is the trend towards outsourcing, particularly among large industrial firms. By shifting more and more of their production to contractors, companies can distance themselves from potential charges of labor rights abuses and other illegal behavior and keep labor costs low by forcing contractors to compete for business with an ever smaller number of giant purchasers. The giant firms also have more freedom to hire and fire contractors to meet shifting demand. U.S. corporations have been at the forefront of this trend.

Chrysler (known as DaimlerChrsyler since the merger with Daimler Benz), for example, purchases almost all of its parts, from brakes to seats, from suppliers. Hewlett-Packard relies on 10 different contractors and IBM relies on 8 to make their products. In recent years, Japanese electronics firms, including Mitsubishi, NEC, Fujitsu, and Sony, have also begun to outsource. Still, Americans may be less concerned about the growing gap between profits and employees because of the country's record low unemployment rate. What is often ignored in the mainstream media is the fact that unemployment problems remain prevalent elsewhere in the world, including in many countries where the Top 200 firms are enjoying strong profits. (U.S. firms overall earned 19 percent of their profits overseas in 1995).5 In the European Union, the 1999 unemployment rate was 10 percent, compared to 4.2 percent in the United States.6 The International Labor Organization estimates that one billion people worldwide are unemployed or underemployed.7 Joblessness around the world hurts the United States because it reduces the capacity of consumers in other countries to purchase U.S. products and can lead to social instability that has international ramifications.

Wal-Mart Workers

A full 5 percent of the Top 200s' combined workforce is comprised of Wal-Mart employees. The discount retail giant's workforce has skyrocketed from 62,000 in 1983 to 1,140,000 in 1999, making it the largest private employer in the world. The next largest, DaimlerChrysler, has a workforce of 466,938less than half the size of Wal-Mart's. Although Wal-Mart is indeed providing many new jobs, the company is notorious for its strategy of employing armies of workers on a part-time basis to avoid paying benefits. The firm is also adamantly anti-union. In March, Wal-Mart announced it was closing the meat department in 180 stores two weeks after the meat cutters at one Texas store voted to form a union the first successful organizing drive at an American Wal-Mart.

B. Taxes

Not too big to hide from tax collectors

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) recently released a study of federal tax rates paid by several hundred major, profitable U.S. corporations. Forty-four of the U.S. corporations on the Top 200 list were included in the study, which revealed that not a single one of them had paid the full standard 35 percent corporate tax rate during the period 1996-1998. Seven of the firms had actually paid less than zero in federal income taxes in 1998, because they received rebates that exceeded the amount of taxes they paid. These include:

Texaco, Chevron, PepsiCo, Enron, Worldcom, McKesson and the world's biggest corporationGeneral Motors. According to ITEP, companies use a variety of means to lower their federal income taxes, including tax credits for activities like research and oil drilling and accelerated depreciation write-offs.

Tax Avoidance Internationally

While company-specific data on tax avoidance outside the United States does not exist, the trend towards lower corporate tax burdens is also evident internationally. According to the OECD, over the past two decades the share of total taxes made up by corporate income tax in the industrialized OECD countries has remained about 8 percent, despite strong increases in corporate profits. The organization attributes this decline in tax rates to the use of ''tax havens'' and intense competition among industrialized countries as they attempt to lure investment by offering lower taxes.

V. Conclusion

As citizen movements the world over launch activities to counter aspects of economic globalization, the growing power of private corporations is becoming a central issue. The main beneficiaries of the market-opening policies of the major multilateral institutions over the past decade and a half are these large corporations, especially the top 200.

 

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