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COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 21 Apr 2009

Aaron Smith

Exxon Mobil tops Fortune 500

Exxon Mobil shoved aside Wal-Mart Stores to retake the top place on the Fortune 500, proving that Big Oil was king of the economy last year.

Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500) was the top selling-company in 2008, with nearly $443 billion in revenue, a jump of almost 19% from the prior year. The Irving, Texas-based oil giant was also the most profitable, with earnings of $45.2 billion.

Wal-Mart, which reigned as No. 1 on the Fortune 500 the past two years, slipped to second place. The recession was a boon for Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500): As cash-strapped customers crowded its discount stores, the retailer’s sales grew 7% to more than $406 billion. But that wasn’t enough to keep up with oil-rich Exxon.

The Fortune 500 ranks America’s largest corporations by their annual revenue. The list was announced by Fortune magazine (which is published by Time Warner, CNNMoney.com’s parent) on Sunday.

Other oil companies took high ranking spots in the Fortune 500. Chevron (CVX, Fortune 500) held its place at third, its revenues growing nearly 25%, while ConocoPhillips (COP, Fortune 500) moved up one notch to fourth, its sales jumping more than 29%. But the company lost almost $17 billion owing to its high exposure to refineries, which got squeezed by rising oil prices and slowing consumption. That gave ConocoPhillips a more dubious distinction — placing seventh on the list of worst money losers on the Fortune 500.

Meanwhile, General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) moved up one slot to fifth place, with sales of $183 billion. General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) were close behind, despite plunging revenues as customers steered clear of car lots.

It was a rough year for the Fortune 500 overall. All told, America’s 500 biggest companies earned $98.9 billion in 2008, down 85 percent from $645.2 billion in profits the previous year. And 128 companies on the list had losses, totaling $519.3 billion. The previous year, just 57 Fortune 500 companies lost money, for a total of $116.7 billion.

The bailed-out insurance giant American International Group (AIG, Fortune 500) topped the list as worst money loser of all.

As President Obama said in a recent speech, "I promise you, nobody is more frustrated than me with AIG."

Rounding out the five worst money losers are Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500), Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500), General Motors and Citigroup (C, Fortune 500).

Investors in Fortune 500 stocks mostly saw their portfolios take a hit last year: Only 24 of the 500 companies generated a positive return last year. Dollar Tree (DLTR), a retailer of $1 items, was the No. 1 stock performer, returning a whopping 60% to investors in 2008. Yet it just barely made the Fortune 500, appearing at No. 499. Investors must have had dollar signs in their eyes, because Family Dollar Stores (FDO, Fortune 500) was the second-best stock performer, gaining about 39% on the NYSE.

There’s some good news for women in this year’s Fortune 500, as more female executives crack the glass ceiling. Fifteen Fortune 500 companies are now led by women, compared to 12 the prior year. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, Fortune 500), whose chief executive is Patricia Woertz, is largest of them all, at No. 27 on the list. Other high-ranking women include Angela Braly, CEO of No. 32 WellPoint; Lynn Elsenhans, CEO of No. 41 Sunoco; Indra Nooyi, head of No. 52 PepsiCo; and Irene Rosenfeld, chief of No. 53 Kraft Foods.

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