Custard creams and the ‘network of global corporate control’

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Posted Feb 8 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

I bought a packet of custard creams the other day, and saw that they were made by a company called Crawfords. I wondered who Crawfords were and who ultimately owns custard creams. I have a general feeling that a small cartel of giant corporations owns more-or-less everything branded, but I’ve never really looked into the details. Why I chose custard creams I don’t know. Maybe because they remind me of being a child in the Midlands.

Growing up, Crawfords sounded to me like a family firm where everyone knows everyone else, and they have a little door with a bell on it when you walk in – somewhere like Rochdale or Wigan, maybe.

Perhaps that was once the case, but now they’re owned by United Biscuits. United Biscuits is a Godzilla of a company. Most of the biscuits you’ve ever eaten were probably produced by United Biscuits – wherever you are in the world. Their annual revenue is over £1 billion.

But it doesn’t stop at United Biscuits. A little research shows that in 2000 United Biscuits were bought by ‘a consortium of financial investors’, and then in 2006 by the Blackstone Group – a private equity and investment banking group with a skyscraper in Manhattan, managing funds of over £300 billion (since then UB has been sold to a smaller holding company worth ‘only’ around £20 billion).

What interest do global financial institutions have in biscuits? Is it because they enjoy baking? I’ll let you answer that.

heinz-soup

So then I thought about another childhood favourite – Heinz tomato soup. In my mind’s eye, Heinz was already a bigger company than Crawfords, but who was it ultimately owned by? It didn’t take much research at all, this one. Heinz merged with Kraft and is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, an American multinational conglomerate holding company, with over £500 billion in assets (that’s billion, not million – that’s more money than you could possibly imagine), and 3G, another multi-billion dollar global investment firm (private equity, hedge funds), who own Burger King.

My God, do we really need the global financial sector to make soup and biscuits? Surely if there’s anything we can make for ourselves in our communities it’s soup and biscuits? Does every spoonful of soup or every biscuit we eat really have to suck money out of our communities to pay the shareholders of £500 billion finance corporations? Really?

This stuff is not difficult to find – it’s a game you can play with other brands, that will amuse and horrify you in equal measure. You begin to see just how far the money men have their talons into us.

What else do the money men own? I did a bit more research, and remembered a study carried out by Swiss researchers in 2011 that blew me away at the time. You may or may not have seen it first time round, but I thought I’d mention it again here. The study was by Stefania Vitali, James Glattfelder and Stefano Battiston, and was called ‘the Network of Global Corporate Control’.

network-corporate-control

It’s the first serious attempt to look at the overall corporate control of the global economy. Concentrations of wealth in individuals and families have been studied, but not control of other organisations. In their introduction they say:

Certainly, it is intuitive that every large corporation has a pyramid of subsidiaries below and a number of shareholders above. However, economic theory does not offer models that predict how TNCs globally connect to each other.

They looked at the ability of certain shareholders to impose their decisions on a portfolio of multinational corporations, and how concentrated this power is. Here’s a summary of what they found:

  • The Orbis database identifies 30 million global economic actors, of which 43,000 are identified by the OECD as transnational corporations.
  • Transnational corporations form a giant ‘bow-tie’ structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity”.
  • The strongly connected component, or core, is very small compared to the other sections of the bow-tie.
  • About 3/4 of the ownership of firms in the core remains in the hands of firms of the core itself. In other words, this is a tightly-knit group of corporations that cumulatively hold the majority share of each other.
  • Only 737 top holders accumulate 80% of the control over the value of all TNCs. This represents around 0.1% of the total, and is comprised mainly of US / UK financial institutions.
  • Within this group of 737, 40% of the control over the economic value of TNCs in the world is held, via a complicated web of ownership relations, by a group of 147 TNCs in the core, which has almost full control over itself. This represents 0.02% of the total.
  • 75% of the core are financial institutions.
  • Network control is much more unequally distributed than wealth. In particular, the top ranked actors hold a control ten times bigger than what could be expected based on their wealth.
  • When a financial network is very densely connected it is prone to systemic risk. Indeed, while in good times the network is seemingly robust, in bad times firms go into distress simultaneously. This knife-edge property was witnessed during the recent financial turmoil.
  • Antitrust institutions around the world (e.g., the UK Office of Fair Trade) closely monitor complex ownership structures within their national borders. The fact that international data sets as well as methods to handle large networks became available only very recently, may explain how this finding could go unnoticed for so long.

Here’s the study, here’s a write-up about it in New Scientist, and below is a TED talk by one of the researchers, James Glattfelder, entitled ‘Who Controls the World?’ (note – the write-up and the talk are much easier to understand than the study).

So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Bake your own biscuits.
  2. Make your own soup.
  3. Understand how control of the global economy is concentrated in an extremely small number of financial institutions, and what this means for democracy.
  4. Don’t fall for conspiracy theories about specific families, Jews or Illuminati (especially lizard-related theories); the problem is the system – if key people are removed, others will replace them.
  5. If at all possible, buy things that are unbranded. Keep money in your community rather than having it siphoned out to strengthen the corporate sector.
  6. Talk to other people about this / blog it / put it on social media – some people will think you’re a bit mad at first (trust me on this one), but more and more people are getting it.
  7. Move your mortgage from a corporate bank to a mutual society (e.g. a building society like the Nationwide), or if you’re looking to buy, approach a mutual rather than a bank.
  8. Move your money.
  9. Change your life.
  10. Join our network.