Imagine two people who have seemingly equal skills and background. They go to work for two different companies. However, one "superstar" company grows much faster, so that wages and opportunities in that company also grow much faster. Or they go to work in two different cities. One "superstar" urban economy grows much faster, so that wages and opportunities in that city also grow faster.
Of course, such patterns of unequal growth have always existed to some extent. When evaluating a potential employer or location choice, people have always taken into account the potential for joining a superstar performer. The interesting question is whether the gap between superstar and ordinary firms, or between superstar and ordinary cities, has been growing or changing over time. For example, some argue that the rise of superstar firms, and the resulting rise in between-firm performance and labor compentiation, can explain most of the rise in US income inequality.
The McKinsey Global Institute has a nice report summarizing past evidence and offering new evidence of their own in Superstars: The Dynamics of Firms, Sectors, and Cities Leading the Global Economy (October 2018). It's written by a team led by James Manyika, Sree Ramaswamy, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Michael Birshan, and Zubin Nagpal. Short summary: Superstar firms and cities do seem to be widening their economic leadership gap, with the evidence that certain sectors are superstars seems weaker.
For superstar firms, the report notes:
"For firms, we analyze nearly 6,000 of the world’s largest public and private firms, each with annual revenues greater than $1 billion, that together make up 65 percent of global corporate pretax earnings. In this group, economic profit is distributed along a power curve, with the top 10 percent of firms capturing 80 percent of economic profit among companies with annual revenues greater than $1 billion. We label companies in this top 10 percent as superstar firms. The middle 80 percent of firms record near-zero economic profit in aggregate, while the bottom 10 percent destroys as much value as the top 10 percent creates. The top 1 percent by economic profit, the highest economic-value-creating firms in our sample, account for 36 percent of all economic profit for companies with annual revenues greater than $1 billion. Over the past 20 years, the gap has widened between superstar firms and median firms, and also between the bottom 10 percent and median firms. ... The growth of economic profit at the top end of the distribution is thus mirrored at the bottom end by growing and increasingly persistent economic losses ..."
Some other patterns are that the superstar firms "come from all sectors and regions and include global banks and manufacturing companies, long-standing Western consumer brands, and fast-growing US and Chinese tech firms. The sector and geographic diversity of firms in the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent by economic profit is greater today than 20 years ago." Along with being more profitable, superstar firms spend more on R&D and on intangible investments like intellectual property, software, and brand value. In additinon, the rate of movement (or the "churn") in and out of the deciles doesn't seem to have changed much over time.
For individuals thinking about potential employers, and for individuals and firms thinking about location decisions, it's useful to consider the potential gains of being connected to a superstar firm or city.
For a national economy, a different question arises. What is the "special sauce" that superstar companies and cities are using to achieve their outsized and growing levels of productivity and income? Companies and cities will always differ, of course. But the rising advantage of superstars raises a question of how at least some of those practices and policies might be more broadly disseminated across the rest of the economy.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.