Every British schoolboy used to be taught that trade followed the flag. Wherever the Redcoats and gunboats went, the merchants and manufacturers were right behind.
But it is the well-heeled financiers who have oiled the wheels of commerce for centuries who are the lasting legacy of Britain's imperial trade, at least if our second annual list of the UK's 40 largest public companies is anything to go by.
Banks, finance firms and insurers occupy 15 of the 40 places, and six of the top ten. The highest-ranked newcomer to the list, Standard Life, at number 26, is an insurance company. In all, three of the seven débutantes are financial firms.
Right at the top: HSBC, the world's fourth-largest listed banking group by assets, behind UBS, Citigroup and Mizuho Financial Group. The H in HSBC stands for Hong Kong and the S for Shanghai. As we have noted, in Britain's case, our list resonates with intriguing imperial echoes, though in today's globalised world the analogy should be stretched only so far.
Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, and HBOS join HSBC in the top six of this year's list. The H in HBOS stands not for Hong Kong but less exotic Halifax (the northern English textile town, not the Lord Halifax who was viceroy of India). Since a merger with Bank of Scotland in 2001, HBOS is the UK's largest home-loan provider.
All four banks occupy the same positions in the ranking as last year. And, as last year, HSBC is separated from the other three by two oil and gas companies, BP and Royal Dutch Shell. This year they swap positions, with Royal Dutch Shell moving into second slot.
The biggest movers all rose four spots: telecoms giant BT Group to 14th, British American Tobacco to 17th, brewer SABMiller to 28th and grocer J Sainsbury to 33rd.
The seven débutantes apart from Standard Life include Xstrata, a mining group that is also listed in Switzerland, property developer Land Securities, utility Scottish & Southern and High Street health and beauty retailer Alliance Boots, formed in June by the merger of Alliance UniChem and Boots Group.
Two interbroker dealers--specialist brokers for investment banks--also make our list for the first time. They are ICAP, the world's largest, and Collins Stewart Tullett. Both qualify under our formula (see below) because of their huge asset base.
Notable drop offs included Alliance & Leicester, a finance and insurance group that is struggling to keep pace with larger rivals. It slid from 30th place the previous year, the steepest fall from grace. The list also lost Hilton Group, last year's No. 40 but which this year was split up. Its hotels were sold to Hilton Hotel and the company renamed after its remaining Labbrokes betting business.
Our country lists use the same methodology as their parent list, the Forbes 2000. The commercial behemoths listed here get a composite ranking from four metrics: sales, profits, assets and market value. We do this to get at a more rounded definition of bigness than employing just a single measure would.
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However, these lists differ from the Forbes 2000 in two respects.
First, they use the latest available comparable financial data from the companies, whereas the Forbes 2000 is by its nature an annual snapshot that necessarily values a world of corporate bigness on the same day.
Second, they list only the biggest of the big. Fewer than one in three of the 125 UK companies that make the Forbes Global 2000 make the UK 40. The top three UK 40 companies, HSBC, BP and newly domiciled Royal Dutch Shell make the Forbes 2000 top ten, but bottom-ranked Scottish & Southern is still in the top 25 per cent of the Forbes 2000.
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