Exxon, too big to care (plus a chart challenge!)


The charts accompanying Friday’s segment about Exxon’s extreme profitability (and consequent indifference to safety violation fines) drew a lot of interest among the viewing-while-tweeting audience, so I’m sharing them here with a bit of explanation. But for the real kicker, open the post all the way to see the challenge of telling this story visually when the number discrepancy is so great.

The real point of the first chart was not just how much money Exxon makes, but now much more money it makes than other companies that make a huge amount of money. Exxon really is an animal unto itself. The numbers come from the Fortune 500 2012 list. Note that we’re looking at the second column, profits, not raw revenue.

After the jump, how much bigger Exxon is than companies you already think of as big. Plus, see if you can help solve the challenge of comparing Exxon’s profit with the fines levied against it for safety violations.

The second graphic also uses the latest Fortune 500 list.

In case you’re curious, the math works out like this:

Wal-Mart ………………15,699,000,000
American Express…….4,935,000,000
Goldman Sachs………..4,442,000,000


We used the Fortune 500 list because it’s the most accessible way to compare companies on equal terms. But the 2012 Fortune 500 list is actually based on 2011 numbers, and there is a more current report of Exxon’s profits for 2012. In February, Exxon reported its full year 2012 earnings were $44.9 billion (pdf).

So divide that by 366 (2012 was a leap year) and you get $122 million (and change) per day.

Part of the point of Friday’s segment was that the fines Exxon has faced are so puny in relation to how much money the company makes that there’s no real incentive for them to heed regulations. They don’t feel the punishment for violations. In 2010, Exxon was fined $26,200, and in 2011 it was fined $1.7 million. The challenge, if you want to demonstrate that on the TV, is how to compare these relatively tiny drops to Exxon’s humungo bucket at a scale at which both numbers fit on the screen and are actually visible.

If you’ve got a solution, I’d like to see it. Our solution was to first break that annual profit number into daily profit, so at least we’re in the ballpark. (This reminds me of the game we’d play as kids when Michael Jordan was a huge star and we’d divide his annual income by days, hours and seconds to find out how much he made in the time it too to do little things like blink his eyes three times.)

The $1.7 million is at least visible when we measure against daily profit. In trying different ideas I made a pie chart that shows it as a narrow sliver. But the $26,600 isn’t visible on that chart. In most cases I tried, the scale was immediately thrown off by the thickness of any line used to indicate the placement of the 2010 fine. So instead I started at the tiniest scale, a single pixel. 

Even at the pixel level, a 1:1 ratio doesn’t work. Photoshop won’t let me make a 122,000,000 pixel tall image. So I divided the whole thing by 100. So on the chart below, the red stripe is 262 pixels. Our blog is 600px wide, so with that limitation here, I had to make the total graph 2034 lines high, blowing my goal of a TV-possible image. In fact, I blew my goal of a blog-possible image as well. Maybe I should have tried 3D? Animation? 

Exxon, too big to care (plus a chart challenge!)

Exxon, too big to care (plus a chart challenge!)