Four Centuries of Global Leadership

Global Financial Data has collected data on the London Stock Exchange and the United States stock exchanges as well as data on individual companies over the past 400 years. This data covers all the major companies that have listed in London, New York, Paris and Amsterdam during the past four centuries. This data provides us with a fascinating glimpse into how global leadership has changed over the past 400 years. GFD has put together a table that provides information on what was the largest company in the world in each decade since 1602 and the total capitalization of that company. The results tell us a lot about how the global economy has evolved over time.

Four Centuries in Four Paragraphs

Between 1600 and 1850, two companies dominated global stock markets, the Dutch East India Company during the seventeenth century and the Bank of England from 1730 to 1860. After that global leadership rotated from one company to another every few decades, first to the London and North Western Railway, then to Standard Oil, then to AT&T, then to IBM. During the past 30 years, no company has dominated the top spot for more than a few years.

The domicile of the largest company has changed along with global leadership. The Netherlands dominated the seventeenth century, England the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the United States the twentieth century.

All market cap values have been converted into US Dollars. Before 1792, the US Dollar didn’t exist, so values were calculated in British Pounds and converted into US Dollars at the rate of 4.60 US Dollars to the British Pound. In 1602 the market cap of the Dutch East India Company was less than $3 million, but it grew to $10 million by 1640. During the brief bubble of 1720, the Compagnie des Indes grew to $220 million in market cap, making it twice the size of the South Sea Co. which grew to $101 million in 1720. No company was to breach $200 million until 1880 when the London and North Western railway reached a market cap of $260 million.

The first billion-dollar company was Standard Oil, which was briefly worth $1 billion in 1913 before the U.S. government split it up into over 30 separate companies (see the article, “The First Billion Dollar Company”). General Motors became the first company to be worth $10 billion in 1955 (along with E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. while Standard Oil and AT&T followed in 1956). Nippon Telegraph and Telephone became the first $100 billion company in 1990 during the Japanese stock bubble, and in 2018, Apple and Amazon are reaching for $1 trillion. Who will win?

The Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company enabled the Dutch to dominate world trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The article, “The First and the Greatest: The Rise and Fall of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC)” detailed their rise and fall between 1602 and 1800 when the company went bankrupt and was nationalized.

Originally, investors pooled money to fund maritime journeys to the Far East and back, but the innovation of the Dutch East India Company was to make the investment permanent and not refund investors’ money after each trip, but to allow them to share in the profits of each voyage. Over the years, investors in the company reaped huge returns, though often the dividends were paid in kind, in the spices brought back from the far east, rather than in cash.

During the 1700s, the Dutch East India Co. faced competition from the British and French, but it wasn’t the competition that did in the Dutch East India Co., but the fact that the VOC did not expand its share capital. Instead, the company borrowed money so the existing shareholders could preserve their share of ownership. By the end of the 1700s, the debt load was so large that the company collapsed into bankruptcy, ending the reign of the Dutch East India Company.

The Dutch East India Company, 1602 to 1794

The Interregnum

The success of the Dutch in trading with the Far East encouraged the English and the French to try and repeat the success of the Dutch. The British East India Company had actually been founded in 1600, prior to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company. Though not as large as the Dutch East India Company, the British East India Company’s success bred resentment in England and in 1694 the company lost its monopoly of trade with India. A new East India Company was established in 1698 which obtained more funding than the old East India Company. The fact that competition lowers prices and profits soon became obvious and in 1708 the two East India Companies agreed to merge into a single entity. In 1700, the New British East India Company was the largest company in the world and in 1710 the conjoined East India Company was the largest. The East India Company was the ruler of India from 1757 until 1858 when the British government seized the company’s assets and began its rule over India.

Although most people associate 1720 with the South Sea Bubble in London, the explosion of the Compagnie des Indes (see the article “The Mississippi Bubble, or How the French Eliminated All Their Government Debt”) made it the largest company in the world in 1720. Although the market cap of the South Sea Co. reached 22 million British Pounds ($100 million), the market cap of the Compagnie des Indes hit 48 million British Pounds ($220 million) making it over twice the size of its English cousin.

Both France and Britain had piled up large debts in the War of the Spanish Succession and the bubbles were attempts to convert their government debt into equity in companies that traded in the Far East. These schemes eliminated the government debt, but at the expense of investors who lost their fortunes.

The Bank of England

The Compagnie des Indes was reorganized after the bursting of the bubble and continued to operate successfully until the end of the 1700s. The South Sea Co. never found any profitable ventures and invested its assets in British government bonds (see the article “The South Sea Company – the Forgotten ETF”). The British East India Co. began running India after the Carnatic Wars with France.

The true beneficiary of the bursting of the bubble was the Bank of England (see the article “The Bank of England – Safe for Widows and Orphans”), which reigned supreme in London for the next 150 years. Central banks of other countries, such as the Banque de France and Bank of Ireland were the largest companies in their countries, but all were smaller than the Bank of England.

Between 1730 and 1860, Depending upon market conditions, the Bank of England ranged in size from 12 million British Pounds to 32 million British Pounds ($60 million to $150 million). However, the Bank of England was only able to maintain its reign for so long. The railroad bubble of 1845 laid the foundations for the industry which would dominate the stock market during the rest of the nineteenth century.

The Bank of England, 1698 to 1945

The London and North Western Railway

After the collapse of the railroad bubble of 1845, railroad companies in England merged with one another to control costs and raise prices. The largest railroad agglomeration was the London and North Western Railway which comprised the Grand Junction Railway, the London and Birmingham Railway and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway. The railroad continued to acquire other railroads in Lancashire and the Midlands making it the largest company in the world in 1865.

The core of the line connected London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. At its peak before World War I, the company employed over 100,000 people. After 1900, the profitability of all the railroads in England started to decline. In 1923, the British government amalgamated all the British Railways into four main lines with the London and North Western Railway becoming a component of the London, Midland and Scottish railway. In 1945 and 1946, the Bank of England and all the English railways were nationalized, and the two companies that had dominated the global economy from 1720 to 1900 became the property of the British government.

The Rise of Standard Oil

In 1900, global leadership moved to America. In 1898, for the first time, the market cap of American companies exceeded the market cap of British companies. American railroads listed not only in New York, but in London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. But it wasn’t a railroad which became the largest company in the world in 1900, but an oil company, Standard Oil.

The interesting thing about Standard Oil is that until 1920, it wasn’t even traded on the New York Stock Exchange, but the company and all the subsidiaries that were spun off from Standard Oil in 1913 were traded over-the-counter. Rockefeller and others owned a large portion of the shares and until the company had to raise more capital in 1920 by issuing Preferred shares, Standard Oil found no need to list on the New York Stock Exchange.

Standard Oil became the first billion-dollar company in 1913 before it was broken up into Standard Oil of New Jersey and over 30 constituent companies. Nevertheless, in 1920, Standard Oil of New Jersey was still the largest company in the world.

ExxonMobil (Standard Oil of New Jersey) 1882 to 2018

The American Century

During the twentieth century, with the exception of the Japanese bubble, the largest company in the world was an American company. American Telephone and Telegraph became the largest company in the world in 1922 and held the title most years between then and 1967 when IBM took over the top spot.

Companies other than AT&T or IBM periodically held the top spot for a few years. The Penn Central Railroad was the largest company after Standard Oil was broken up, reigning from 1912 to 1915. Standard Oil of New Jersey regained the title in 1916. National City Bank (later renamed Citicorp) was the largest company in the world in 1925, 1927 and 1928 before the bank collapsed in price during the Great Depression.

General Motors was the largest company in the world between 1954 and 1956, and although AT&T held the top spot in the remaining years, General Motors was usually second.

In 1967, IBM became the biggest company in the world and held that title for the next 20 years. AT&T was the biggest company in 1981, but in 1983, AT&T was broken up into Ma Bell and the seven Baby Bells forever losing any claim to be the world’s largest company.

The Era of Musical Chairs

Since the 1980s, the top spot has been taken by a number of different companies.

The surge in the price of oil in the 1980s brought ExxonMobil (formerly Standard Oil of New Jersey) back to the top spot, making it the largest company in 1989 and 1991 to 1992. General Electric took the top spot from 1993 to 1997 and again in 2000, 2001 and from 2003 to 2005. Microsoft was the largest company in 1998 and 1999 and again in 2002. ExxonMobil reigned supreme from 2006 to 2011.

The only time when America lost the title of having the largest company in the world was during the Japanese stock market bubble of 1989. Nippon Telephone and Telegraph went public in 1987 and by 1989 it was the largest company in the world, larger than the entire German stock market and almost twice the size of the next largest firm, IBM. At $119 billion, NT&T became the first $100 billion company. In 1990, six of the top ten global spots were held by Japanese companies and 333 Japanese companies (vs. 329 for the United States) were in the Fortune Global 1000. After the Japanese bubble burst in 1990, American companies took back their global leadership.

Since 2012, Apple has been the largest company in the world and is now approaching $1 trillion in market cap. As long as the iPhone dominates the market, it will probably continue to hold the top spot, but for how long?

Since 2012, Apple has been the largest company in the world and is now approaching $1 trillion in market cap. As long as the iPhone dominates the market, it will probably continue to hold the top spot, but for how long?

Global Leadership in the Twenty-First Century

What will the largest companies be in the twenty-first century? Two companies dominated the top spot in the nineteenth century, the Bank of England and the London and North Western Railway. During the twentieth century, a small number of American companies traded off the top spot between each other with Standard Oil/ExxonMobil, AT&T and IBM dominating the field.

During the past few decades, however, leadership has constantly shifted and in 2018, Apple’s reign is being threatened by Amazon which some time in the near future may gain the top spot.

Will America be able to dominate the global stock market for the rest of the century? Will Tencent, Alibaba or another Chinese firm become the biggest company by market cap? Will a new bubble propel companies past the $1 trillion mark? Only time will tell.

400 Years of Global Leadership


Year Largest Company In The World Market Cap In USD
1602Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)2.77
1610Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)4.71
1620Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)5.08
1630Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)4.63
1640Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)10.12
1650Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)13.49
1660Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)10.70
1670Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)13.55
1680Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)11.96
1690Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)12.36
1700East India Company Stock (New Company)19.92
1710East India Company Stock17.37
1720Compagnie des Indes (Mississippi Co.)221.30
1730Bank of England Stock66.90
1740Bank of England Stock64.46
1750Bank of England Stock73.38
1760Bank of England Stock57.39
1770Bank of England Stock70.83
1780Bank of England Stock58.46
1790Bank of England Stock100.19
1800Bank of England Stock83.83
1810Bank of England Stock116.63
1820Bank of England Stock150.06
1830Bank of England Stock136.33
1840Bank of England Stock110.57
1850Bank of England Stock150.69
1860Bank of England Stock164.46
1870London & North-Western Railway188.39
1880London & North-Western Railway26.25
1890London & North-Western Railway328.56
1900Standard Oil Co.803.00
1910Standard Oil Co.608.71
1920Standard Oil of New Jersey613.63
1930American Telephone & Telegraph Co.3,152.55
1940American Telephone & Telegraph Co.3,134.24
1950American Telephone & Telegraph Co.4,320.87
1960American Telephone & Telegraph Co.23,944.37
1970International Business Machines Corp36,218.42
1980International Business Machines Corp39,606.90
1990Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Co.119,000.00
2000General Electric Co.475,003.24
2010ExxonMobil Corp.368,771.99
2017Apple Inc.874,111.87