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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

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.

Go deeper

A look at WeWork's most notable moments

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

WeWork will finally become publicly traded next month — two years after its failed IPO attempt — as it completes its merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

Flashback: Since the co-working office company's initial public listing plans flamed out in spectacular fashion, WeWork has become a very different company.

Sep 21, 2021 - Health

Health care profits for me, but not for thee

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In July, the head of the American Hospital Association blasted UnitedHealth Group for its "jaw-dropping" profits in the second quarter. But an analysis of financial documents shows a sample of large not-for-profit hospital systems that collectively generated the same amount of revenue as the insurance giant were almost three times more profitable than UnitedHealth.

Reality check: Companies and lobbying groups often paint their business foes as the primary problems with the health care system, but each sector contributes to the system's dysfunction.

28 mins ago - Health

Other drug companies want to help make the vaccines

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Generic drug companies have asked Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to license their COVID-19 vaccine technology to help increase global production, but so far the vaccine makers have given them the cold shoulder.

Why it matters: Other companies are saying they have extra capacity to make more vaccines. Not using that extra capacity could prolong the pandemic throughout the world.