Most economists today don't ask who rules the global economy, visualizing it as a decentralized competitive market that cannot be ruled. Yet new evidence suggests that global economic clout is highly concentrated among large interlocking transnational companies.
Perspectives from expert contributors.
Three Swiss experts on complex network analysis have recently examined the architecture of international ownership, analyzing a large database of transnational corporations. They concluded that a large portion of control resides with a relatively small core of financial institutions, with about 147 tightly knit companies controlling about 40 percent of the total wealth in the network.
Their analysis draws heavily on network topology, a methodology that biologists use to good effect. An article in the British magazine New Scientist describes the research as evidence of a global financial oligarchy.
The technical details of economic network analysis are daunting, but the metaphors evoke a "Star Trek" episode: the network is described as a bow-tie shaped "super entity" of concentrated corporate ownership. One cannot help but worry about threats to the safety of the starship Enterprise.
In recent years, research on industrial organization has focused more on corporate strategy than on social consequences. A recent article in the socialist journal Monthly Review, by John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney and R. Jamil Janna, criticizes both mainstream and left-wing economists for their lack of attention to monopoly power.
Focusing on the United States, they note that the percentage of manufacturing industries in which the largest four companies account for at least 50 percent of shipping value has increased to almost 40 percent, up from about 25 percent in 1987.
Even more striking is the increase in retail consolidation, largely reflecting a "Wal-Mart effect." In 1992, the top four companies accounted for about 47 percent of all general merchandise sales. By 2007, their share had reached 73.2 percent.
Banking, however, takes the cake. Citing my fellow Economix blogger Simon Johnson, the Monthly Review article notes that in 1995, the six largest bank-holding companies (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) had assets equal to 17 percent of gross domestic product in the United States. By the third quarter of 2010, this had risen to 64 percent.
Some of these companies have undergone name changes in the process. A graphic published about a year ago in Mother Jones beautifully illustrates their merger history.
Large companies are often able to offer lower prices than small ones because they can take advantage of economies of scale. On the other hand, if their market power reaches a certain level, they can increase prices as much as they like. The consequences of economic concentration for consumers are complicated by more difficult-to-trace impacts on small businesses, American workers and small businesses.
The concentration of economic power at the top distills political power in ways described long ago by the sociologist William Domhoff in his classic "Who Rules America?" The related Web site provides updated information, exhorting today's "change agents" to conduct social scientific research seriously.
Public concerns about economic concentration are stoked by hard times. Congress authorized a full-scale investigation of the topic back in days of the Great Depression.
Seems like the time has come for a fully international update.
Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.