Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) remained in the top spot in Fortune magazine's 2005 ranking of the 500 largest publicly traded U.S. companies, and oil and metal producers benefited from soaring commodity prices.
Wal-Mart was No. 1 on the Fortune 500 for the fourth straight year, with 2004 sales of more than $288.189 billion, up about 11 percent from 2003.
Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) ranked second once again with $270.772 billion in sales, up a stunning 27 percent from the year before as the price of oil rose above $50 a barrel and gasoline sold for more than $2 a gallon. The company also topped Fortune's profits charts for the second year in a row with $25.3 billion in earnings, breaking Ford Motor Co.'s (F) record from 1998.
Time Warner Inc.'s (TWX) Fortune magazine first published the sales rankings in 1954, and since then only Wal-Mart, General Motors Corp. (GM) and Exxon Mobil have topped the lists. The latest annual rankings are included in the edition arriving at newsstands on April 11.
The only change in the top 10 came as International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) slipped a rung to No. 10 with $96.293 billion in sales and American International Group Inc. (AIG) — now facing a government probe for improper accounting — edged up to No. 9 from No. 10 with $98.610 billion.
Automakers GM and Ford ranked No. 3 and No. 4 respectively, despite GM's $2 billion drop in sales to $193.517 billion from 2003. General Electric Co. (GE) came in fifth with $152.363 billion, followed by oil companies ChevronTexaco Corp. (CVX) with $147.967 billion and ConocoPhillips with $121.663 billion — both beneficiaries of rising oil product prices — and Citigroup Inc. with $108.276 billion.
Thirty-eight of the 42 industry sectors that Fortune tracked posted increased profits, while electronics and electrical equipment, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and airlines suffered profit declines.
With China's surging demand for raw materials and commodity prices reaching new heights, metal producers witnessed the most impressive profit growth over the past year, with gains of more than 800 percent.
"If a company's taking stuff out of the ground, it was making money," Fortune writer Janice Revell said. Aluminum company Alcoa Inc. at No. 79 saw a 40 percent rise in profits, while copper miner Phelps Dodge Corp. increased profits 11-fold.
"We're seeing old-fangled, low-glamour companies at the forefront," Revell said. She added that the housing sector saw big gains thanks to low interest rates last year, allowing some new homebuilders to make the list.
The list's most notable debut was media conglomerate News Corp. (NWS) at No. 98. The company, owned by Rupert Murdoch, moved its headquarters from Australia to the United States last year and recently increased its ownership of Fox Entertainment Group Inc.
News Corp. is the parent company of the Fox News Channel, which operates FOXNews.com.
Meanwhile, glaringly absent from the upper echelons of the Fortune 500 was insurer Fannie Mae, which ranked at No. 20 last year but failed to file 2004 financial statements due to accounting problems.
Shareholders saw good returns from Fortune 500 companies over the past year, as the Fortune 500 index measured a total return of 10.3 percent in 2004.
More than half the 500 companies added employees in 2004, but it's likely most of them were overseas. Fortune examined data from 45 companies on the list that voluntarily provide employment figures, and found foreign employment rose by 9.6 percent, while U.S. employment rose by less than 1 percent.