Every April Fortune Magazine produces its “Fortune 500” issue, which lists the largest corporations in the US and provides handy tables that show which companies and industries are most profitable. In previous years, automobile manufacturers have dominated the list, but this year GM and Ford have slipped in favor of–yes, you guessed it–oil companies.
The newly-merged behemoth Exxon Mobil is number 1 with $210 billion in revenue and profits of $17.7 billion. Other energy companies place high on the list, too, with Enron at number 7 ($13.5 billion in profits), Texaco at 16 ($2.5 billion), Duke Energy at 17 ($1.7 billion), and Chevron at 20 ($5 billion). GM and Ford, naturally, are at 3 and 4, confirming our nation’s continuing love affair with sport utility vehicles, the most efficient mass-produced global warming devices in the world.
A look at the accompanying tables confirms which industries have skimmed the most wealth from the American populace. “Fastest-Growing Companies” lists them in order: Energy, Pipelines, Mining & Crude Oil Production, Petroleum Refining, and Utilities rank 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 respectively on this list. The categories are a bit arbitrary. Companies listed under “Pipelines”–Enron and Dynegy, for example–are also major players in the energy and utilities industries. A reasonable person would group all of these companies together under one broad “Energy” category, which would show how obscenely powerful this entire industry is. For example, the table “1 Year Growth in Profits” lists the top three industries as Mining & Crude Oil Production (473.9% growth), Petroleum Refining (148%), and Pipelines (73.2%). Most of the other industries had well below 20% growth last year.
It’s important at this point to remember that oil and energy companies were the largest contributors to George Bush Jr.’s presidential campaign last year. They could obviously afford to buy a presidency and they did.
As we all know by now, what really makes or breaks a company is what’s commonly called “Shareholder Rate of Return,” a term for what a company pays its shareholders in dividends, plus the amount its stock has increased in value during the year. Number 1 and 2 on this list are no surprise: “Wholesale” Health Care Services and Health Care Services, both passing on enormous wealth to their investors–102% and 89.2% respectively. Again the separation of companies into these two categories seems arbitrary; combining them makes more sense. And somehow, Pharmaceutical Companies (number 8) and Drug Stores (number 18) are always listed separately, as if medicines are not part of the nation’s health care system.
Skipping down the list we find Pipelines, Energy, and Utilities at number 3, 4, and 5, passing on rates of return to their shareholders of 88.6%, 67.3%, and 48.9%, well above the negative rates of return of at least half the industries on the list.
As we delve into the companies listed within each category, we find that some of the most profitable are the ones who cashed in big on the California energy crisis. Enron and Duke Energy appear on just about every list tracking profitability and fast growth. Last year Enron had 151% growth and Duke Energy 126.8% growth in revenues. Dynegy shows a 5-year growth in revenues of 51.7%, while Reliant Energy’s 5-year growth rate is 46.2%. Dynegy is number 3 on the list of “Best Investments,” producing an obscene 220% total return to its shareholders–a huge chunk of which is money paid by the government of California to bail out its bankrupt utilities.
If, for example, we wanted to take a reasonable approach to cure the “energy crisis,” (as opposed to Bush’s unreasonable approach that would pour more money into the pockets of the most profitable companies in the US) and we decided to nationalize these vital industries for “national security reasons,” exactly how much value would we receive by seizing their assets? (I can dream, can’t I?)
Enron has $65.5 billion in assets with nearly $101 billion in annual revenues. Duke Energy has $58 billion in assets and Dynegy $21.4 billion. Reliant Energy, another major supplier to the California market, owns $32 billion in assets. And these are just the little guys. Exxon Mobil, the giant energy octopus, has assets of $149 billion.
Somehow we’re supposed to believe that privatization makes products cheaper, but the past year has shown clearly that this is not true. While power prices have surged all over the West Coast, oil and gas prices have also climbed, and natural gas prices have skyrocketed. As more companies merge (like Exxon and Mobil), there are fewer and fewer players in each industry. A small number of enormous companies can easily control price levels and withhold supply, if necessary, to get the price they want.
George Bush’s moves to increase supply–particularly by providing tax credits to oil and gas companies and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands to oil and gas exploration–will do absolutely nothing to lower energy prices. Not a single, damn thing. Only breaking the backs of these giant monopolies and reversing California’s energy privatization plan will do it.