A Swiss study appears to have uncovered what anti-capitalist activists have been claiming for years -- that the global economy is controlled by a small group of deeply interconnected entities.
But don't grab a pitchfork and head to the nearest Occupy protest just yet. Systems researchers say this isn't the result of an Illuminati-type global conspiracy, but rather a natural force to be expected.
"Such structures are common in nature," complex systems expert George Sudihara told NewScientist.
According to the study's authors -- a trio of systems researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology -- the research isn't ideologically motivated. Instead, they say, it's the first attempt at mapping the power structure of the global economy, an effort that may help to prevent future financial crises.
What they found, they say, was an economy so deeply interconnected that its structure is alarmingly susceptible to shocks.
The researchers say that while there's nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the concentration of capital in the hands of a small number of companies, when those companies become too interconnected, they can cause chain reactions that can harm the economy.
"If one [company] suffers distress," study co-author James Glattfelder said, "this propagates [itself]."
That fits with recent experience; the financial crisis of 2008 began as a problem of excessive liabilities at a handful of companies. But these companies had financial links to the rest of the industry, and their insolvency threatened to take down the entire financial system.
According to the study, which will be published shortly in the scientific journal PLoS One, there is a core group of 1,318 multinational companies that sit at the centre of global commerce. They own a majority of shares in 60 per cent of the world's large businesses and manufacturers.
Within that group, the researchers identified a "super-entity" of 147 companies that control 40 per cent of the wealth within the multinational commerce network. According to the researchers, each of the 147 companies is owned by other companies within the "super-entity," essentially creating a self-contained network of wealth.
A majority of the companies listed in the network are financial institutions, with British bank Barclays at the top of the list. Asset managers Capital Group Companies and Fidelity Investments are in second and third, while insurer AXA and State Street Corporation round off the top five.
Interestingly, the bogeyman of financial reform champions, Goldman Sachs, placed only 18th on the list.
The researchers say their work is evidence the world may need global anti-trust regulations -- rules designed to keep companies from becoming too large in their sector, or from developing de facto agreements to cooperate with competitors.
Complex systems experts note the tendency for wealth to concentrate in a small number of hands is natural.
"The Occupy Wall Street claim that one per cent of people have most of the wealth reflects a logical phase of the self-organising economy," Dan Braha of the New England Complex Systems Institute told NewScientist.
Critics of the study say the researchers were measuring the wrong things, and therefore providing an incorrect image of global wealth.
As one commenter argued on the Forbes website, looking at the ownership structure of multinational corporations doesn't give you an idea of who controls the wealth, because many of the companies on the study's list are managers of wealth, not owners of it.
The list also does''t measure "pension plans, corporate [retirement] plans and individual funds [that] manage trillions in assets ultimately belonging to individuals who are predominantly not in the 'one per cent,'" the commenter wrote. "There are a number of 'custodian banks' in the list ... Again, they do not own the assets, or even really control the assets -- they merely house the assets. A better list would be the actual asset OWNERS, rather than the vendors who manage, house and clear said assets."
Here are the 5 companies at the top of the Swiss researchers' rankings.