It wasn’t always that way. The first company to achieve a billion-dollar valuation was U.S. Steel, a company so old its NYSE ticker symbol is just X. It reached that high-water mark near the turn of the 20th century, the result of consolidation in the steel market. Andrew Carnegie, the incumbent steel magnate, was ready to move on to philanthropy, and the bankers J.P. Morgan and Charles Schwab orchestrated a buyout. Steel was important for industry at the time, and the new company’s billion-dollar valuation was a statement about the broader economy as much as U.S. Steel itself. When one company controls a large portion of an important market, it’s no surprise that it commands big money when securitized—that is, turned into a bet on the future, not just a measure of the present. The future often turns out differently, of course. U.S. Steel has gone through many changes in the 117 years since its three-comma milestone, most of them declines. Today, the company’s stock, still trading as NYSE:X, is worth just over $6 billion. That’s less than half of Apple’s net profits from last quarter alone.
Big business has also gotten a lot bigger. $1 billion in 1901 amounts to about $30 billion in 2018 dollars, a number closer to the current value of, say, SiriusXM—a respectable company, but hardly an apotheosis of contemporary industrialism. Together, the top six global businesses, all of which are tech companies, are worth over $5 trillion. There are reasons for that. Reduced oversight has made consolidation easier and prevented breakups from antitrust. Companies are a lot more profitable than they once were, too—especially tech companies, which devour huge earnings from historically small investments in workforce and capital expenditures. Those huge profits make them more valuable to financiers, whose speculative interest in companies accelerates their value. And the size and importance of the securities market has also swelled since the Great Depression wiped it out, making finance—the conversion of business activity into tradable collateral—the place where wealth accrues.
Apple’s accomplishment, if that’s the right word for it, was inevitable. One of the biggest companies was going to reach $1 trillion in value sometime soon, and because the biggest companies today are tech companies, it was bound to be one of them. In some respects, it’s a dubious and arbitrary achievement. $1 trillion is a distinctly American measure, for one thing. A valuation measured in British pounds sterling would take a lot more value to reach £1 trillion. And for another, Apple’s stock has teetered up and down during trading today, as it does every day. The stock will measure below $1 trillion in market capitalization at some point today (or tomorrow, or next week), even if eventually it stabilizes well above that figure. But in a culture obsessed with numerical markers and records, Apple forever will be the first company to reach $1 trillion. That is something no one can take away from it, like no one can take away Babe Ruth’s 1927 home-run record, even if it was topped 34 years later.