Fact Checked

What is the Forbes 500?

Terry Masters
Terry Masters

The Forbes 500 is a comparative evaluation of the top 500 public corporations in the U.S., produced by Forbes magazine. It was published annually from 1948 through 2003. Forbes replaced the Forbes 500 with the Forbes Global 2000 in 2004.

Forbes is the oldest business magazine in the U.S. Part of its publishing legacy is the development of a series of "report cards", lists that ranks corporations and individuals based on certain criteria, such as profits and market value for corporations or wealth and influence for individuals. The Forbes 500 was the first of these business industry report cards that was published by the magazine.

Man climbing a rope
Man climbing a rope

This list was comprised of five sub-lists that ranked the top 500 U.S. corporations in the categories of sales, profits, assets, market value, and number of employees, and a composite list called the Super 500 that represented the 500 strongest corporations across categories. The use of the number 500 was somewhat misleading, however. There could be more than 500 corporations represented across the five sub-lists. In 2003, for instance, the last year the Forbes 500 was published, there were 824 corporations on the sub-lists, while the Super 500 represented the magazine’s synthesis of the information to determine the top 500 U.S. corporations across categories.

The criteria Forbes used to determine its Super 500 distinguished the Forbes 500 from comparable lists published by other business magazines, which often used only sales figures or market value to compile their lists. Fortune magazine’s Fortune 500, for instance, ranks corporations solely on the basis of revenue. The Forbes 500, comparatively, had an element of subjectivity that was viewed positively or negatively, depending upon context. Despite this subjectivity, or perhaps because of it, inclusion on the annual Forbes 500 became a significant badge of prestige for U.S. corporations.

In 2003, Forbes transitioned from an industry analysis that included only U.S. corporations to a global perspective that evaluated corporations worldwide. That year marked the last publication of the Forbes 500 and the first publication of the Forbes Global 2000, which ranked the top 2000 public corporations in the world using substantially the same criteria as its predecessor. Although its competitors were still publishing U.S.-based lists, Forbes used the Forbes Global 2000 to shore up its international publications and adopt a broader context.

The transition from the Forbes 500 to the Forbes Global 2000 has not been without issues. Applying the same criteria to international corporations that may have different tax years, accounting practices, or other country-specific issues can produce inconsistent results. While U.S. corporations still dominate the rankings, it is not as easy as it once was to determine the reliability of the magazine’s composite analysis.

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