At the 2021 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett addressed the question of trading for the short term. He asked his on-line audience how many of the top 20 companies by market capitalisation in 1989 were still in the top 20 in 2021. The rather surprising answer: none.

Amazingly in 1989, 13 of the top 20 companies were Japanese. It was the peak of Japan’s boom before its economy descended into a multi-decade long slump in which equity and property prices both fell by 77%.

In the 2021 list there wasn’t one Japanese company. What a difference 30 years can make. 

If the Japanese were retreating, the Americans were gaining. While In 1989 six of the top 20 companies were American, none of those high-flyers — Exxon, GE, IBM, ATT, Philip Morris and Merck — made the 2021 list. They had been usurped by west coast tech companies. 

Here are the top five companies in 1989 (and 2021)

Industrial Bank of Japan (Apple)

Sumitomo Bank (Saudi Aramco)

Fuji Bank (Microsoft)

Dai Ichi Kanyo Bank (Amazon)

Exxon (Alphabet)

America’s ascendance was led by tech but its dominance went deeper. Thirteen of the top 20 companies in 2021 were US-based. They included Tesla (#11), Visa (12), JP Morgan Chase (13) and Johnson and Johnson pharma (14).

America was even further ahead

By February 2024 America was even further ahead, with 8 of the top 10, and 16 of the top 20 global companies. The values are enormous. The world’s largest company, Microsoft, which scooted past Apple, has a market cap of $3 trillion.  Six of the biggest US companies have market caps that exceed one trillion dollars. Those companies — in addition to Microsoft and Apple — are Alphabet, Amazon, Nvidia, and Meta. Buffett’s Berkshire is next at number eight, but its market cap is only $848 billion.

Top ten, February 2024



Saudi Aramco








Market capitalisation, of course, is only one measure of economic strength. Revenue or sales are important.  In that category Walmart is the leader, followed by Amazon. Importantly, these stock market values are denominated in dollars, and the dollar has been strong against other currencies, particularly the Japanese yen, which is 40% weaker than it was.

And what about China? While there were no Chinese firms in the 1989 list, in 2021 there were several led by Tencent and Alibaba. Both those companies failed to make the top 20 market cap list in 2024. While controlled within a tight band, the Chinese currency is also down against the dollar. The Chinese stock market has lost $6 trillion in the past three years. Meanwhile Tokyo’s stock market has reached its highest level in 34 years.

Ten years from now, will US-based companies still lead the world? No one knows. But it’s worth remembering Warren Buffett’s observation from that 2021 Berkshire annual meeting: “The world can change very rapidly.”


At present US companies are globally dominant, particularly in internet-linked technology. In fact, the market cap of the seven US equity high-flyers, the magnificent seven, exceeds the combined valuation of the UK, Japanese, and French stock exchanges.

But please curb your enthusiasm. The United States has a huge debt problem that at some point could send the dollar and the US economy into a tailspin.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has released a report that clearly shows that the explosion of US government debt is unsustainable. For the current fiscal year, with the economy at full employment, the deficit is projected to reach $1.6 trillion, equal to 5.6% of gross domestic product. Alarmingly, the deficit is expected to expand each year, reaching $2.6 trillion or 6.1% of GDP in 2034. Deficits have exceeded that level only during and immediately after World War II. Worse still, the CBO’s economic assumptions are likely far too optimistic. It assumes inflation over the next decade to average 2%, annual GDP growth of 2%, and a 2% real yield on the 10-year treasury note.

Last month Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell told the 60 Minutes television program, “The debt is growing faster than the economy, so it is unsustainable.” Similarly, Senator Rand Paul observed that the United States “is the only government in America that is not constrained by its budget. In fact, we don’t even have a budget most years.”

No one knows when profligate US deficit spending will become a crisis. Likewise, at the moment neither the euro nor the RMB are seen as credible alternatives to the dollar in international commerce.

So let the good times roll with the dollar, US companies and the US economy riding high.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch