Countries vs. Companies: Big Oil is bigger than Japan

Companies and countries are very different. Comparing them along simplified economic indicators like GDP and revenues is like comparing apples and oranges. Still, I have taken some time out to do exactly that. Have a look here for the full list. It’s basically a mental exercise to develop some perspective on our current macro-economic playing field. I am sharing the results in this article. Feel free to contact me so I can correct any glaring errors.


My first observation is that ranked by revenues/GDP, companies make up 44% of the top 100. Walmart, the biggest individual company has annual revenues of $482 billion. That is more than the GDP of countries like Belgium, Poland or Argentina. In fact, it is bigger than the GDP of the 80 smallest countries combined! (out of a total of 190 countries)

Ownership of these large corporations is mostly private, so not necessarily tied to specific governments. But 9 companies are clearly Chinese owned and 15 companies American owned. Both countries have a very particular, but also very different idea about how markets (should) work. It would be very surprising if the corporate culture in these companies would not in some way advance their home country’s ideological agenda.

Big Oil is bigger than Japan

There are 20 oil, gas, electric utility and commodities companies in the top 100. Half of them have revenues larger than the GDP of countries like Portugal, Venezuela and New Zealand. The revenue per employee is enormous: $1 million and upward.

The combined revenues of ‘Big Oil’ is upwards of $4.5 trillion, ranking only behind the USA ($18.5tn) and China ($11.4tn). Again, I am not claiming any academic rigor here. I am just trying to understand what kind of (economic) forces we’re dealing with.

It is sort of intimidating though, that if you accept that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels and limit greenhouse gases, you will inevitably need to find a way to ‘transition’ these companies as well. Unfortunately, according to a recent speech by the CEO of Shell, the current mindset in the oil and gas industry is more ‘contrarian’ than ‘wir schaffen das’ (read my previous article for more insights).

Confronted with the sheer size of these corporate players it might be tempting to either reject the current system wholesale and preach a revolution or just give up and accept that as citizens we don’t have any meaningful control over our destiny any longer. Both approaches are not sustainable however.

Inertia and lock-ins will limit our capacity to replace the fossil based industry in the short term. Perhaps a major economic, ecologic or social disruption could create a breakthrough moment, but this is definitely not something to look forward to. Without any change however, global ecosystems will continu to deteriorate, the risk of destabilization, break-downs and collapse grows, and pressure will inevitably build to find more sustainable alternatives.

An opportunity to outgrow the fossil regime

We have to find a way to make a transition towards more sustainable outcomes. For example, by using existing carbon neutral technology to drive economic growth. This way we can organically ‘outgrow’ the current dominance of the fossil based regime.

Consider the huge GDP-per-capita gap between advanced economies and BRIC and MINT countries. If India’s average GDP ($1,720) would rise to the level of Thailand ($6,234), total GDP would rise with more than $6 trillion.

gdp-per-capita-benelux_mint_bricIn a scenario where GDP growth can be realized by only using renewable energy (India’s service industry is actually quite well suited for this), this ‘green’ growth would completely offset the $4.5 trillion of revenues currently generated by fossil based companies.

Obviously, all these observations are based on very broad strokes. The main point is that the stakes in the 21st Century have increased exponentially. We are faced with serious sustainability issues. At the same time, a new class of mega multinational companies has emerged, with resources and revenues matching or exceeding the GDP of many small and mid-sized countries.

It seems we are evolving from a nation-state world order to a more hybrid configuration, with private or publicly owned companies operating on a similar scale as governments. Considering their capacity to either accelerate or complicate the transition towards a more sustainable future, it makes sense to also consider them world powers and include them in these kind of lists and comparisons.

Let me know what you think by commenting on this article.