Oxfam got some headlines last week with ‘World’s 722 biggest companies ‘making $1tn in windfall profits’’.
This is a good example of a ‘killer fact’ – a memorable statistic that summarizes an injustice, in this case a massive windfall for big corporates at a time of global austerity and spiralling food and fuel prices. Here’s my 2019 guide to writing them.
Oxfam’s pretty good at these – remember the sequence of Davos headlines that contributed to pushing inequality up the agenda both at those meetings and more generally? Back in the early noughties, I also had fun with European cows getting over $2 a day in support from the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy – more than half the world’s people were earning at the time.
One key aspect of a killer fact is to prepare in advance for any challenge by being transparent and convincing about showing your working. The Press Release on which the media pieces were based said ‘methodology available on request’ – here it is.
Analysing the profit of the Forbes’ 2023 edition of the ‘Global 2000’ which lists the 2.000 largest public companies in the world we found that 722 companies made a combined windfall profit of $1.09 trillion in 2021 and 1.1 trillion in 2022. A 90% windfall tax on this windfall could generate $941 billion each year 2021 and 2022. A 50% windfall tax would generate $523 billion each year 2021 and 2022.
45 energy corporation (oil and gas companies) made on average $237bn a year in windfall profit in 2021 and 2022.
18 food and beverage companies made on average $14bn a year in windfall profits in 2021 and 2022
9 Aerospace & Defense companies made on average $8bn a year in windfall profits in 2021 and 2022
28 Drugs companies made on average $47bn a year in windfall profits in 2021 and 2022
28 retailers made on average $23 bn a year in windfall profits in 2021 and 2022
The companies in the sample saw their average 2021-2022 total profit increase by 89% compared to their 2017-2020 average total profits.
All numbers are nominal, i.e., not adjusted for inflation.
We define windfall profit as when the 2021-2022 average profit is 10% above the 2017-2020 average. Calculating the windfall profit for both 2021 and 2022 is done relative to the years before inflation and corporate profits took off in 2021.
The analysis is based on the Forbes ‘Global 2000’ list of the 2.000 largest public companies. The methodology that Forbes use to compile the list is available here. Of the 2000 companies, 1.094 have been present on the Forbes list every year since fiscal year 2017. Eliminating the companies that made a loss in 2021 and 2022 reduced the number of companies from 1.094 to 976. Of those companies, 722 (74%) made a windfall profit. Where a company made an average loss in 2017-2020 this was treated as 0 and thus contributing to making the estimated size of windfall profits conservative.
Categorising the Forbes’ ‘Global 2000’ companies according to industrial sector we calculated windfall profits for individual sectors.
All numbers are nominal, i.e. not adjusted for inflation.
Windfall tax revenue is calculated as a tax rate of between 50% to 90% of the windfall profits i.e. for both 2021 and 2022 only the profits 10% above the 2017-2020 average profits are included in the tax base for windfall profits.
Total yearly tax revenue from a 90 percent windfall tax on 2021-2022 windfall profits: $941 bn. The tax revenue concerns the companies’ global profits and cannot be presumed to be allotted to the headquarter country of any the respective companies. As most multinational corporations do not currently provide a country-by-country breakdown of their profits it is not possible to present country level revenue estimates.
Wages and inflation
Oxfam estimates of CEOs across four countries real-term 9 percent pay hike in 2022, while workers’ wages fell by 3 percent. One billion workers in 50 countries took an average pay cut of $685 in 2022, a collective loss of $746 billion in real wages compared to if wages had kept up with inflation. See https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/top-ceos-got-real-term-9-pay-rise-2022-while-workers-worldwide-took-3-pay-cut
There are now 96 energy billionaires with a combined wealth of nearly $432 billion ($50 billion more than in April last year). This is based on the Forbes real time billionaires list as of end April 2022 and end May 2023 https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/’
Although few people will actually read it, getting the methodology both right and in the public domain is crucial. You also need to do it in advance. When the cow fact came out, the phones were jumping off the hook as policy wonks called to fact check before sticking it in the speeches of their ministers. If you put out a ‘killer fact’ and you can’t back it up immediately, the story risks becoming one about NGO misinformation, with real reputational risks involved. A credible guide to how you arrived at the numbers may not deter the trolls, but it will certainly strengthen your chances of keeping the spotlight on the issue that you’re trying to highlight.