The 2011 Fortune 500: The Big Boys Rack Up Record-Setting Profits

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Fortune 500By Shawn Tully, CNNMoney

Given the sluggish recovery and a strapped consumer, you'd expect to see corporate America trudging along, not racing for glory. In fact, the Fortune 500 are thriving as a group. Unlike the U.S. economy, they've shown quicksilver agility, rapidly shifting their product mix and producing more goods at little new cost. This nimbleness belies the immense size of these companies and, frequently, their advanced age.

The Fortune 500 generated a total of $824.5 billion in earnings last year, up 16.4% over 2010. That beats the previous record of $785 billion, set in 2006 during a roaring economy. The 2011 profits are outsized based on two key historical metrics. They represent 7% of total sales, vs. an average of 5.14% over the 58-year history of the Fortune 500. Companies are also garnering exceptional returns on their capital. The 500 achieved a return-on-equity of 14.3%, far above the historical norm of 12%.

Looking deeper into the list, several macro trends emerge. High prices at the pump translated into great results for energy companies like Exxon Mobil, which topped the Fortune 500 with $453 billion in revenues. Your friends on Wall Street may be complaining about smaller bonuses, but financial services are experiencing a comeback of sorts. For 2011, the sector posted $150 billion in earnings, up 19% over 2010. The financial sector also saw a revival in the fortunes of the big commercial banks. Meanwhile, technology wasn't quite the profit machine that it's been in past years. Sector earnings rose by just $5 billion, although tech remains the largest profit-maker at $156 billion, narrowly edging the resurgent financials.

These big numbers can't last. The gravitational pull of the business cycle will eventually end the profit bonanza, in part because many companies carried out brutal layoffs during the recession and will now be forced to hire more workers to maintain their growth. So let's enjoy it as a heroic but fleeting moment, not a durable new age.

Here are the Top 20 Companies in the Fortune 500



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