Shell jumps ahead of Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil as world's largest company

There's a new number one in town, and it's a bit of a surprise. According to the Fortune Global 500 ranking of the world's largest corporations, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) leapfrogged over Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and ExxonMobil (XOM) to take the top spot. Royal Dutch Shell pulled in $15 billion more in sales than ExxonMobil last year, with ExxonMobil coming in second, and Wal-Mart falling all the way to third in terms of revenue.

Royal Dutch Shell is Europe's largest oil producer and aims to stay that way (and to stay on the top of Fortune's rankings) with its $18 billion investment in a plant in Qatar that will turn natural gas into cleaner-burning diesel fuel. This facility is expected to be up and running by 2010 and the company believes it will produce enough fuel to fill more than 160,000 cars per day. ExxonMobil remained in the second spot, thanks to $443 billion in revenue and $45 billion in earnings. Wal-Mart slipped despite a solid year as the "hottest stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2008."
These rankings show the impressive year turned in by oil companies and the struggles that have hit retail. Not that Wal-Mart is struggling, or that it turned in a poor year -- quite the opposite. However, the retail sector as a whole could not keep up with Big Oil in 2008. With crude ranging anywhere from $146 to $46 per barrel, the oil companies were able to make the most of the situation. Many retailers struggled thanks to the economic downturn, with Wal-Mart ranking as one of a few retailers to do well, thanks to the low prices that the company offers its customers. Imagine how strong the two oil firms were if Wal-Mart "racked up $30 billion in additional sales -- the equivalent of adding the annual sales of a Fortune 75 company" -- and yet still fell in the rankings.

The potential problem I see for Wal-Mart is if their sales actually do drop in 2009 -- they turned in a great year in 2008 and yet fell in the rankings. If sales fall as the economic crisis deepens, the company could be in for a bit of a struggle. Of course, a continued economic struggle could mean that the aisles will remain full of shoppers at Wal-Mart. It could go either way. As for the oil companies, it will be tough to recreate the stellar year turned in by distillers and purveyors of black gold.

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