Was the East India Dutch Company Ever Worth $7 Trillion in Today’s Dollars?

Spoiler alert: No.

After Apple made history by becoming the first publicly traded company to be worth more than $1 Trillions in the US stock market, several news sources reported that, adjusting for inflation, the East India Dutch company was worth, at one point in the late 1600s or early 1700s, more than $7 Trillions. Here, for example, is a Time.com article putting its adjusted value at $8 Trillion.

There were only about 600 million people in the world at that point (source) mostly living off subsistence agriculture, and that would be more than $10,000 of today’s dollar per person! Maddison estimates the the world’s GDP at that time was about $90 Billion in 1990 dollars (source) or about $180 Billion in 2018 dollars (source for 1990-2018 adjustment) and the GDP of the Netherland at that time was about $4 Billion in 1990 dollars (source) or about $8 Billion in 2018 dollars. Could a company really be worth a thousand time the GDP of its country and 40 times the world’s GDP? Maddison’s estimates are controversial, but even Bairoch’s higher estimates put the combined GDP of North America, Europe, Russia and Japan at about $300 Billion in 2018 dollars (source).

So how much would the 1700s value of the Dutch East Indian Company be worth in 2018 dollars, and where did the crazy $7 Trillion come from? The answer to the first question is about $1 Billion, and the answer to the second question is not clear, but most likely someone named Alex Planes came up with that number with some creative methodology, and then the factoid made it to more and more prestigious publications, each one citing the previous occurrence, and this includes publications with high standards for fact-checking like the Atlantic.

Trying to answer the second question shows how completely broken fact-checking is whenever numbers are involved.

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Lies, Damn Lies, and New York Times Reporting

Exercise for the reader: find what is wrong with the following paragraphs from an article in the New York Times about the high cost of certain cancer drugs.

In the clinical trial that led to approval of the drug, 27 percent of the 109 patients experienced a reduction in tumor size. The reductions lasted a median of 9.4 months.

But considering all the patients in the trial, only 12 percent had a reduction in tumor size that lasted for more than 14 weeks.

Update: from the press release of the pharmaceutical company:

The results of the trial demonstrated that 29 of 109 evaluable patients, or 27%, responded to FOLOTYN. The median duration of response was 287 days, or 9.4 months (range 1-503 days). Thirteen of 109 evaluable patients had a duration of response ≥ 14 weeks (range 98-503 days).

So the median of 29 numbers is 287, and 16 of those numbers are less than 98.