Jul 29, 2021 - Economy & Business

Giant earnings growth for the world's largest companies

Illustration of a giant cursor breaking the ground underneath it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Never in the history of capitalism have the world's biggest companies grown as fast as the tech giants in recent years.

Why it matters: A series of stunning earnings reports this week — with another one likely to arrive Thursday afternoon, from Amazon — has underscored the astonishing growth among a group of companies that were already some of the most profitable of all time.

Data: YCharts and FactSet; Chart: Will Chase/Axios
Data: YCharts and FactSet; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

The big picture: The standard view from Wall Street to Silicon Valley has always been that fast growth is found in startups, while mature companies provide a much more reliable income stream. Today's tech giants, however, are growing at a pace that many entrepreneurs would covet.

By the numbers: As recently as 2017, Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Facebook combined were worth less than $2 trillion. Today, Apple and Microsoft are each worth more than that alone. The five biggest tech giants (including Amazon) are now collectively worth $9.3 trillion.

  • The four companies reporting this week so far generated an astonishing $250 billion in profit just over the past 12 months. Ten years ago, when they all mostly looked identical to how they look today, their profits were less than $58 billion.

Flashback: After the "Nifty Fifty" large-cap stocks imploded in the mid-1970s, Forbes magazine wrote their post-mortem in 1977.

  • Investors had gone temporarily insane, wrote the anonymous author, since "no sizable company could possibly be worth over 50 times normal earnings."

Now, consider Microsoft at this point in 2018. It was a very mature and very large company, with trailing earnings of a massive $16.6 billion. At a valuation of almost 50 times earnings, it was worth $809 billion.

  • Microsoft easily grew into that valuation over the course of three years during which its core product lineup barely changed.
  • Today, its trailing earnings are more than $61 billion, and growing fast. Its market cap is $2.2 trillion, or 35 times its trailing earnings.

The bottom line: The outsized profits at the tech companies look suspiciously like monopoly rents, with no end in sight in terms of how much and how fast they can grow.

  • That's one reason the companies are facing so much scrutiny in Washington. Not that it seems to be having any real effect.
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