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Crowd-pleasing study in capitalism conspiracy controversy

Boffins reckon banks ruled a lot of the world

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In what many took to be fodder for the capitalism-is-a-conspiracy theorists, boffins have claimed that about 150 companies, mostly banks, are controlling the majority of the economic power.

It's the sort of statement that many have made in the wake of the global financial crisis and during the ongoing anti-capitalist protests in cities around the world. However this is first time that someone has actually tried to probe it with scientific methods.

Three complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich used the maths traditionally associated with modelling natural systems and applied it to comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs).

The study, which will be published in the journal PLoS One, found that 40 per cent of the global operating revenues of 43,060 TNCs were ultimately in the control of just 147 companies, many of which were financial institutions.

The researchers sourced their list of TNCs from Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide. Using this data, the theorists constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with company's operating revenues, to map economic power.

Barclays, UBS, AXA and JP Morgan Chase were in the top 10 of those 147, and most of the top 50 were banks, insurance firms or other financial firms, apart from number 50 – which was China Petrochemical Group.

The study has attracted a lot of interest and a number of vitriolic critiques, particularly over its correlation of ownership with power and the age of the data used.

A lot of people would dispute the premise that ownership is the same thing as power. A recent obvious example of the influence one company can have without owning lots of others is Apple. When Steve Jobs died, people from all over the world – including world leaders, politicians, celebs and the media, as well as the fans – reacted strongly, simply on the basis of the products his company made.

But one of the theorists, James Glattfelder, has answered critics on his blog, pointing out that the notion of 'control' should be taken with a grain of salt:

The study also mentions.. "In this sense, our notion of control can be related to Max Weber’s definition of 'power', ie, the probability of an individual to be able to impose its will despite the opposition of the others." It is up for question, if economic agents, having large potential control, would in fact choose not to exert it.

The blog also addresses concerns that the Orbis 2007 database included individuals and governments, but didn't really mention the fact that the database was from 2007, and the economic world has changed somewhat since 2007, which was around the time it was in a meltdown.

For example, Lehman Brothers was number 34 on the list and Merrill Lynch and Bank of America were listed separately at numbers 10 and 25, which dates the research somewhat. One wonders if a more up-to-date model would show that economic control is now in the hands of our governments, seeing as they own large chunks of the banks.

Glattfelder also says he thinks the conspiracy theory 'spin' given to the study is unnecessary, to which the only reply seems to be: stop studying the domination of the world by banks and financial institutions. ®

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