Was going to do more analysis on this but for now, I'll just write a short post.
I took a look at the top 20 Fortune 500 companies and compared them to what they were 20 years ago, in 1996. For those not familiar with Fortune 500, it is solely based on revenue. It ignores market cap, profits, and so forth. Because it uses sales (or revenue), the picture it presents is often quite different from, say, the S&P 500.
|1||General Motors||$ 168,829||1||Walmart||$ 482,130||415%|
|2||Ford Motor||$ 137,137||2||Exxon Mobil||$ 246,204||124%|
|3||Exxon Mobil||$ 110,009||3||Apple||$ 233,715|
|4||Wal-Mart Stores||$ 93,627||4||Berkshire Hathaway||$ 210,821|
|5||AT&T||$ 79,609||5||McKesson||$ 181,241|
|6||Intl. Business Machines||$ 71,940||6||UnitedHealth Group||$ 157,107|
|7||General Electric||$ 70,028||7||CVS Health||$ 153,290|
|8||Mobil||$ 66,724||8||General Motors||$ 152,356||-10%|
|9||Chrysler||$ 53,195||9||Ford Motor||$ 149,558|
|10||Altria Group||$ 53,139||10||AT&T||$ 146,801||84%|
|11||Prudential Ins. Co. of America||$ 41,330||11||General Electric||$ 140,389||100%|
|12||State Farm Insurance Cos||$ 40,810||12||AmerisourceBergen||$ 135,962|
|13||DuPont||$ 37,607||13||Verizon||$ 131,620|
|14||Texaco||$ 36,787||14||Chevron||$ 131,118||309%|
|15||Sears Roebuck||$ 35,181||15||Costco||$ 116,199|
|16||Kmart Holding||$ 34,654||16||Fannie Mae||$ 110,359|
|17||Procter & Gamble||$ 33,434||17||Kroger||$ 109,830|
|18||ChevronTexaco||$ 32,094||18||Amazon.com||$ 107,006|
|19||Citicorp||$ 31,690||19||Walgreens Boots Alliance||$ 103,444|
|20||Hewlett-Packard||$ 31,519||20||HP||$ 103,355||228%|
|US GDP (1996)||$8,100,201||US GDP (2Q 2016)||$18,561,000||129%|
At first glance, it might seem that the companies have changed quite a bit but a lot of that is misleading. Quite a lot of the changes are due to mergers and acquisitions and restructurings and it isn't evident in the list (some companies like Berkshire Hathaway weren't listed for various reasons). Very few companies' sales actually declined; rather, even when they appear to decline, it is because the company may have sold off a subsidiary, spun it off, and so forth. Looking at something like General Motors (GM) is illustrative of this.
Between 1996 and 2016, GM went bankrupt and shareholders lost everything. GM also shut down several prominent subsidiaries (Pontiac, Saturn, etc) and shed non-core assets and liabilities including golf clubs, "toxic" assets, pension liabilities and so forth. Yet, even after all this negative activity, GM's sales have only declined about 10% to $152 billion from $168 billion in 1996. (For reference, high-flying electric vehicle maker Tesla's sales is only about $4 billion right now--it'll probably take Tesla 30 to 40 years to reach GM's sales. Having said this, Tesla can likely generate higher profits and can be worth more even with less sales.) GM is a good example of a company with dominant, albeit low-margin, products but incompetent management and poor shareholder governance (at least for the last several decades).
As with many top ranking lists, if you are a contrarian like me, you have to be careful with companies that may be hitting the peak or is too popular. For instance, HP has increased its sales significantly (compared to 1996) but it has been struggling lately and it's not clear if it is entering a period of decline.
Since the Fortune list is based on sales, one should check against GDP, which kind of represents the "sales" for the whole economy, to get a feel for how these companies are doing. Admittedly, most of these companies are global and generate foreign sales but I think the US GDP is still a good proxy.
US GDP went up by around 129% in 20 years, which is less than the very-long-term average I would expect. In the long run, US economy has grown around 3% real and 3% nominal for a total nominal GDP growth rate of 6%. If you ignore foreign markets, US companies should growth their sales by around 6% per year (at a minimum they should grow by 3% to cover inflation--right now inflation is lower at around 2% but that's unusual in my opinion.)
Most of these companies appear to have grown faster than US GDP growth, which is good for their shareholders (this outperformance likely came from foreign sales).
Anyway, hope to revisit this in the future with more thoughts.