Is Apple still ahead of the pack? Or did Microsoft or Google manage to pull it off? Did Tesla, perhaps, race in front of everyone? And what about Amazon and Facebook (pardon, Meta)?These giants have been in a tight race for the title of the most valuable publicly traded company for quite some time. As of September 2, 2022, not long after they had reported second-quarter earnings, the winner was still Apple.
Yet the stock value of a company can change quickly. Apple itself has experienced several setbacks. Microsoft dethroned it as the most valuable enterprise in the world a few times, most recently in October last year (and Amazon did beat both of them for the top slot in January 2019), but its dominance did not last long. On January 3 of 2022, Apple became the first company ever to surpass $3 trillion market value. That did not last long either, but Apple has remained ahead of its archrival since then.
But how can we make sense of all the ups and downs in the valuation of these two tech pioneers? For most of the past decade, Apple’s stock price has been both the beneficiary and victim of its own success. While sought-after products like iPhones, iMacs and tablets propelled Apple to new heights, whenever sales appeared to slow the company’s market capitalization suffered. By contrast, Microsoft’s business model has always been centered around steadily growing streams of recurring revenues. You might not need a new smartphone or laptop every year, but if you purchase a software license, a cloud package or a videogame subscription, you will likely buy one again in the future.
Eventually, Apple started borrowing from Microsoft’s playbook: it launched news and games subscriptions, a video streaming service, and even its own credit card. Once Apple moved beyond hardware to software and services, its revenue growth became unstoppable.
To be clear: companies of all shapes and sizes can play the steady and predictable stream of revenue game. Amazon, Google (pardon, Alphabet) and even Tesla (which has monthly fees for its autopilot and self-driving features, as well as for its premium connectivity package) are certainly among them. Today they are all $1 trillion-plus companies, and along with Apple and Microsoft, these top 5 US firms make up for roughly 20% of the S&P 500 index’s entire market value.
Successful strategy (and product, and timing, and management) aside, the total dollar value of a company’s outstanding shares can be affected by a myriad of other unpredictable factors. It was not too long ago when a controversial tweet by former US President Donald Trump could send shares spiraling downward or soaring to new highs without much rationale to support the move. Tesla’s Elon Musk seems at times to hold similar sway over investors. More reliably, every word uttered by the Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, can impact company and sector stock prices. And then there are unforeseeable events like the Covid-19 pandemic: the so-called stay-at-home stocks that gained in value amid shutdowns and remote working dropped when vaccines became available; the opposite happened to those companies that could benefit from the reopening of the global economy.
The problem is that there seems to be an endless reserve of—well, precisely—problems. The stock market’s biggest bogeyman is high inflation and the fear that central banks will continue raising interest rates to bring it down. And then there is the war in Ukraine, which—along with causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis—triggered a massive sell-off in the global markets and sent oil prices skyrocketing. And for all the talk about the rivalry between the US tech giants, today the second-largest company by market capitalization behind Apple is not Microsoft but Saudi Aramco. Last May, the oil giant even briefly overtook Apple as the most valuable business in the world.
When it comes to oil and natural gas, price volatility cuts both ways: prices can deflate as fast as they rise. While fossil fuels are not exactly a thing of the past, the war in Ukraine has only accelerated the energy transition to a greener future. Among today’s highest-valued companies, Saudi Aramco is an outlier: until a decade ago, many of the most capitalized enterprises on the stock market were traditional long-standing blue-chip behemoths like Exxon and Chevron, General Electric, AT&T. Today the top 10 are almost all tech companies.
Focusing too closely on ever-changing share prices, investor sentiment and political events rather than on underlying fundamentals can be misleading. As the wizard of investment and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, famously said, the stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient. Fear often drives decisions when it comes to buying and selling stocks, but even in these tumultuous times many publicly traded companies are not dramatically different in terms of market share, cash flow or employee headcount than they were until a year or two ago. It stands to reason that their growth prospects might have changed in relation of such a historic series of unfavorable circumstances—but those too can shift rather quickly.
This is why Fortune’s annual Global 500 list ranks the world’s top corporations by revenue instead of market capitalization to determine which is truly the largest. Published every year since 1995, the Global 500 list provides a bird’s-eye view of the most important long-term trends in global markets.
For these top companies, 2021 turned out to be a very good year. It came after a very bad one: in 2020 total revenue for the top 500 firms fell 4.8% to $31.7 trillion, the most since 2016—the culprit, needless to say, was Covid-19. However, aggregate sales rose to $37.8 trillion in 2021, an increase of 19% and the highest annual growth rate in the ranking’s history. Walmart managed to reclaim the title of the world’s largest company by revenue for the ninth consecutive year, while Amazon landed at number 2, its highest position ever. The most important takeaway from that is this: for the first time, revenues from companies in Greater China (including, Fortune notes, Taiwan) exceeded revenues from U.S. companies on the list. Overall, they account for 31% of the total. Greater China also has the most companies on the list, 145, up two from last year. In the meantime, the US was up two as well, with 124, while Japan lost six to 47. Overall, the companies included in the survey encompass 229 cities and 33 countries.
Where does Apple, the most capitalized company in the world, stand in Fortune’s ranking? The company actually made it into the top 10 for the first time only in the previous edition of the list, although it drops one spot to number 7 this year. Along with Amazon, it is the only big American tech company making the top 10. Alphabet is at number 17, Microsoft at 33 and Facebook is trailing at 71. Tesla (which according to some definitions is a tech company that makes cars) at 242, is squeezed between the petrochemical firm Shenghong Holding Group and the naval conglomerate China State Shipbuilding.
When ranking companies by revenue, technology stocks do not fare as well as when they are ranked by their market value. Behind Walmart and Amazon in Fortune’s top 10, making up the rest of the top five, we find Chinese energy corporations State Grid, China National Petroleum and Sinopec; Saudi Aramco is at number 6 (but first globally when it comes to profitability); carmaker Volkswagen is behind Apple at number 8; and the world’s largest construction firm China State Construction and Engineering and retail pharmacy chain CVS Health take the remaining two spots.
Why, then, do stock investors often prefer to pour money into tech companies and startups if they generate less revenue than car, energy or pharmaceutical firms? Certainly, the trifecta of Covid-19, inflation and war has made them less inclined to take risks, but it is a well-established axiom that tech companies can have much greater growth potential. A person who bought $100 in Amazon shares during the firm’s 1997 IPO, today would own stocks worth about $170,000.
That also explains the success and interest that—especially when the market sentiment is positive—frequently surround companies with tiny, non-existent or even negative profits. Their shareholders hope that these companies will be “the next Amazon,” a business that recorded its first annual profit in 2003, six years after its IPO. Jeff Bezos has long maintained that investing in future profitability through new products and services takes priority over hitting earnings estimates, a strategy that paid off handsomely.
In other words, there is no simple way to fully ascertain the size, influence and outlook of a company in relation to another at any given moment.
That is not to say that is not worth trying. To that end, the Forbes Global 2000 list—this year at its 20th annual edition—uses a multi-dimensional approach. It ranks the world’s largest companies by using a composite score achieved by weighing revenues, profits, assets and market value equally.
Market turbulence, the report says, has pushed down the collective market capitalization of the 2,000 companies on the list by 4% to $76.5 trillion compared to last year, but all other metrics—as of April 22—were up. Their collective sales rose 20% to $47.8 trillion and their profits were up—way up: they doubled, to $5 trillion.
The survey also turned out results similar to the Fortune 500 list when it comes to energy companies: ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron—which ranked in the 300s in last year’s survey—jumped to the number 15, 16 and 26 spots. Airlines, it is noted, experienced similar rebounds. The report also illustrates—despite the tailwinds currently facing the Chinese economy—the strength of its industries. China’s company count has climbed or has stayed the same each year since the ranking launched two decades ago, with a record 351 firms (including those from Hong Kong) making the list, up 1 from last year. Meanwhile, up by 5, the US still prevails in terms of the number of enterprises listed, boasting a total of 595 firms. Japan (195), South Korea (65), Canada (58), the United Kingdom (57), India (55) France (54), Hong Kong individually (54) and Germany (52) make up the rest of the top 10.
In conclusion, while it is fairly easy—based on economic, technical and organizational criteria—to tell a large company from a small company, things get more complicated when trying to choose among global behemoths which one is the largest. Is it Apple with its giant market capitalization, Walmart with over 10,000 stores in 24 countries, Berkshire Hathaway with a positive track record spanning over six decades and assets of almost $1,000 billion? Like beauty, size is in the eye of the beholder.