4 Defunct Historical Companies Worth More Than Any Modern Megacorporation
Here in the United States, there’s nothing we have deeper reverence for than a gigantic, mega-profitable corporation that doesn’t care if we live or die. Those who have achieved success through the undeniable meritocracy that is the American business landscape are basically treated like heroes. Cash rules everything around us, including things like access to necessary medical care, and that’s the way it should be, baby! If you don’t like it, you better be ready to be screamed at by a ruddy-faced Boomer whose knees are made of chalky gravel thanks to 40 years in service at the company that just laid him off and replaced him with a robot that won’t slow down because of silly things like “pain.”
Although it might be impossible to imagine another business making money in the kind of volume enjoyed by your Bezoses and Zuckerbergs, the fact is that none of today’s biggest megacorps have managed to dethrone some very old and very, very valuable businesses from the days of yore. For roughly two centuries, four companies have held strong as some of the most valuable companies of all time (adjusted for inflation, by market capitalization). Weirdly, though, they all managed to go ass up despite their historic success.
Standard Oil: $1 Trillion
Standard Oil began in Ohio with a man whose last name is basically synonymous with the rich: John D. Rockefeller. When you get an oyster dish named after you, that’s a pretty strong indication that you are richer than any god should allow. One of the things Standard Oil did to increase its control over the market was to absorb basically every competitor it could, until it was a fuel-hoarding Hydra with infinite negotiating power.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t that illegal?" It is — now.
At one point, between 90 and 95 percent of all oil refined in the U.S. was done so under the watchful, singular eye of Standard Oil. When you own 90 to 95 percent of something, you stop having to even try to conduct business at all, and can instead basically dole out your goods like a cackling troll, at whatever price you can dream of. This is why Standard Oil was broken up in 1892 — and then broken up again in 1911 after attempting to sneakily re-form. When the hammer finally fell in 1911, it fell on a company that had a value of over $1 trillion in today’s money — a barrier that even Amazon falls beneath.
South Sea Company: $4.5 Trillion
Standard Oil weighs in as the 8th most valuable company of all time, which makes it even more shocking how much of a gap still exists between it and the Big Three of the past: all shipping companies from colonial times that made so much money, Jeff Bezos seems like a SNAP participant in comparison. Coming in at the meager market cap of $4.5 trillion at its ceiling, the South Sea Company seemed, on the surface, to be a massively profitable company.
It was indeed a pioneer in the world of business, dealing extensively in two things that still exist today: 1) scamming people; and 2) making money off of some highly unsavory practices. One of the South Sea Company’s biggest money-makers, in fact, was the slave trade. Look, Amazon workers might be peeing in bottles, but at least they’re not packing people. Of course, this wasn’t a moral problem for the people of the time, who were all too happy to buy and sell our fellow man. The bigger problem was the massive overvaluation of the company’s stock despite relatively low profits, with investors seeing huge returns without any of the actual business to back it up.
It all came to a head in 1720, when the “South Sea Bubble” popped, causing what is sometimes considered the first financial crisis in history. Thank god we learned from our mistakes!
Mississippi Company: $6.8 Trillion
If you needed any further evidence that the South Sea Bubble was not a uniquely bad idea, just look at the “Mississippi Bubble,” a remarkably similar whoopsie playing out in France at almost the exact same time. It’s one thing for a business to fail. It’s a whole different thing for a business to fail so badly that it destabilizes a national economy and forces the guy who cooked up the whole thing to physically flee. The latter is exactly what a man named John Law managed to achieve with the Mississippi Company, which was valued at $6.8 trillion at its peak.
A Scotsman, Law was the man France decided was the guy to fix its national financial woes, and gave him the keys to their national economy. Law took this opportunity to purchase the Mississippi Company, based around trade in the New World, and inextricably intertwine it with France’s actual economy. Under Law’s less-than-stellar supervision, eventually the entirety of French currency was no longer linked to national gold and silver reserves, but to the price of Mississippi Company stock. When he needed more stock, he printed more money. When he needed more money, he issued more stock. You can hear the Jenga blocks teetering here, right?
This ill-advised chimera of publicly-traded company and national economy would eventually result in massive inflation, which in turn triggered a bank run, at which point Law was forced to explain they didn’t have the gold and silver to pay back people looking to sell their shares. This ended in another massive financial crisis and the second country to exile Law. (The first was for killing a guy in Scotland.)
Dutch East India Company: $8.28 Trillion
Finally, at number one, Big Poppa itself. The most valuable company of all time, and it’s not exactly a photo finish. In the year 1602, the seed that would eventually blossom into some highly problematic foliage was planted with the founding of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or the Dutch East India Company. An absolute juggernaut built on the spice and slave trade in the East Indies, ended up becoming a cautionary tale about the absolute corruption caused by absolute power. The Dutch East India Company also has a particularly questionable feather in its cap, especially given how things turned out: It was one of the first ever companies to offer shares for public purchase, effectively creating the modern idea of the IPO and stocks.
It might have been the only stock to own, but it was also a good one: To this day, the Dutch East India Company holds the crown of the highest valuation ever, reaching $8.28 trillion. Compared to the Mississippi Company or South Sea Company, the Dutch East India Company wasn’t nearly as short-lived or speculative. It genuinely was one of the most successful business enterprises in the history of the world, and had a hand in innumerable modern economic developments. This was, as it usually is, built on the backs of many that didn’t profit at all, but that’s never the shareholders’ problem!
What was a serious problem was — and you’re never going to believe this — corruption among officials? In a company this successful? Color me gobsmacked! They would even be carried in palanquins in Bengal, almost never the form of transportation chosen by anyone particularly trustworthy. In the end, after a roughly 200-year run, the Dutch East India Company was dissolved, putting an end to the most successful business of all time.