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The world's biggest companies

April 09, 2009 10:15 IST

Even a depression is a place for opportunity if you have cash, scale and ambition. Many of the names on this year's Forbes Global 2000 list of the world's biggest companies will emerge on the other side of the trough far stronger when world economies snap back next year.

For the strong corporations, there are rivals to buy, technologies to fund and new markets to enter--all at lower prices than we've seen in years. "Despite the economy, it's important to think about what is possible," says Microsoft chief executive Steven Ballmer.

Forbes' ranking of the world's biggest companies departs from lopsided lists based on a single metric, like sales. Instead, we use an equal weighting of sales, profits, assets and market value to rank companies according to size. This year's list reveals the dynamism of global business. The rankings span 62 countries, with the US still dominant at 551 members, but that is 200 fewer than in 2004, when we first published this global list.

This year, China has 91 members, Korea, 61, and India, 47. Even Kazakhstan is now a Global 2000 member. Also gaining a significant presence on our list are corporations from Arab countries: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each have at least 10 entries on this year's list.

In total, the Global 2000 companies now account for $32 trillion in revenues, $1.6 trillion in profits, $125 trillion in assets and $20 trillion in market value. The Global 2000 continues to amass revenue and assets, but lately, that has not translated into wealth creation or profits. In the past year, combined profits were down 31 per cent while market value was down 49 per cent.

The big picture

The global economy this year will likely contract for the first time since World War II, according to the World Bank. The encouraging news is that the same pool of economists who are pessimistic about this year expect a slight recovery in 2010, albeit at sharply disparate levels, depending on where you live. The current forecast calls for 8.3 per cent gross domestic product growth in China in 2010 compared with estimated growth in 2009; 1.7 per cent in the US and -0.1 per cent in Spain.

Opportunity knocks

An analysis of the Global 2000 shows that despite the turmoil in the banking industry, banks still dominate, with 307 companies in the 2000 lineup, thanks in large measure to their asset totals. The oil and gas industry, with 126 companies, scores high in sales, profits and stock-market value, yet these sectors were not the leaders in growth over the past year. Drug and biotech companies (up 59 per cent) led all sectors in sales growth, while the leaders in profit growth were telecom service firms (up 51 per cent).

Our full list is rich with industry leaders who are making strategic moves to help navigate through these tough economic times. Read our profiles of Denmark's Vestas Wind Systems, the world's largest maker of wind turbines, German engineering giant Siemens, banking software seller Fiserv and Standard Chartered Group of the UKVestas, for example, is making a big push in the US market for green energy, and is building three plants in Colorado.

For the past few years, we have also identified an important subset of the Global 2000: big companies that also have exceptional growth rates. To qualify as a Global High Performer, a company must stand out from its industry peers in growth, return to investors and future prospects. Most of the 130 Global High Performers have been expanding their earnings at 28 per cent a year or better--easy for a start-up, hard for a blue-chip.

Both Vetas and Standard Chartered Group are on our Global High Performers, and nearly half of the 130 companies on this select list have headquarters outside the US Members include well-known foreign companies such as ABB and Nestle; Honda Motor, Toyota Motor and Nintendo (Japan); as well as foreign companies with lower profiles, such as French contractor Vinci. Among notable US Global High Performers are McDonald's, Google and Nike.

To find these global superstars, we analyzed 26 industries of the Global 2000 (we excluded trading companies) and gave each company respective scores for long-term and short-term sales and profit growth; return on capital; debt-to-capital (the lower, the better); and total return over five years. Other requirements for the global high performers list: shares traded in the US or Depositary Receipts, a share price of at least $5, positive equity and sales of at least $1 billion.

The composite performance score for the Global High Performers also includes earnings growth forecasts tabulated by Thomson IBES. Finally, we dropped candidates with good numbers but big problems.

Scott DeCarlo, Forbes