The ink on Exxon Mobil’s balance sheet comes in one grade: Premium. The energy giant fell just short of setting a company — and world — record for profits this year. The last world record was set by — you guessed it — Exxon Mobil, back in 2008. The abundance of cheaper domestic energy both hurt and helped the company in 2012. A greater supply of U.S. crude and natural gas drove production revenues down. But it was Exxon’s refineries that saved the day. With supplies close at hand, making fuel was a lot cheaper, which helped boost profits. — Tom Ziegler
In its first year without Steve Jobs, Apple managed to climb a notch on our list of most profitable companies. How long it can stay there is another story. 2012 results were driven by the iPhone. In the fourth quarter alone, sales of the smartphone spiked 58% year over year. But sales growth for the iPad dropped, disappointing fanboys and investors used to blowout results. Meanwhile shares have dropped about 40% since September’s all-time high on worries over demand, supply issues, shrinking profit margins, and the looming threat of rival Samsung and its Android-driven devices. –T.Z.
Like Exxon Mobil, Chevron relied on its refineries to hold up its bottom line in 2012. When oil prices were climbing, integrated energy companies were urged to dump their low-margin refining units. But Chevron and Exxon didn’t listen, and when crude prices dropped, the hedge paid off. Profits at Chevron’s U.S. downstream operations jumped by a third year over year on increased supply of domestic energy. That wasn’t enough to keep overall profits from slipping, however, as big bets on upstream ops, like natural gas exploration, have yet to pay off. –T.Z.
J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
It was a year of records and reckoning for J.P. Morgan Chase. The bank’s highest annual profit ever was tainted by the $6.2 billion “London Whale” trading loss on risky bets. The scandal also cut into CEO Jamie Dimon’s bottom line when the board hit him with a 50% pay cut. But as Mr. Dimon likes to say: Life goes on. 2012 marked strong results across all of J.P. Morgan’s units. Until interest rates finally rise from rock-bottom levels, however, the bank will continue to get pinched on the profit it makes off its loans.–T.Z.
For the bank that provides a third of all U.S. mortgages, the housing recovery has been a boon. Wells Fargo posted record annual profits last year on the back of an industry-wide refi-renaissance. But in the final quarter of 2012, Wells rang a warning bell that the boom might be ending. Mortgage lending slowed for the first time in more than a year, and like J.P. Morgan, the bank continues to suffer from low interest rates. Wells Fargo’s net interest margin — a key measure that tracks loan profitability — shrank in the quarter and continues to contract into 2013.–T.Z.
If you’re still not convinced the housing recovery is well underway, take a look at Fannie Mae. The mortgage financing giant posted record profits for 2012 on a sharp drop in foreclosures and delinquencies on the loans it owns or guarantees. That’s quite the turnaround from four years ago, when the federal government had to take control after the housing bubble burst. Now that Fannie Mae is profitable, it’s well on track to pay back the $116 billion Uncle Sam put up to bail the company out.–T.Z.
The profit machine at the world’s largest retailer continues to chug along. Wal-Mart’s net for 2012 climbed a respectable 8%, capped by a solid holiday shopping season at the end of the year. But the bellwether for consumer spending spooked market watchers when it warned of sluggish sales in the first quarter of 2013. Wal-Mart said consumers are getting hit especially hard by higher payroll taxes and rising gasoline prices. Whether that hurts lower-income customers or drives more of them to the discount retailer remains to be seen.–T.Z.
Reporting your first quarterly loss ever is not the way a company wants to end its fiscal year. But a bad bet on online ad unit aQuantive forced Microsoft to report a $6.2 billion writedown in its fourth-quarter results last June. The software giant has redeemed itself since then. Microsoft released Windows 8 last fall, and despite a dying PC market, sales jumped 23% last quarter. The company’s smartphone and tablet offerings have yet to make a dent against their rivals, but with boosts from the Xbox and a move to cloud computing, Microsoft is growing again and meeting expectations.–T.Z.
In her first year at the helm, Ginni Rometty steered IBM toward higher profits in 2012, despite a dip in sales. A long-term shift to higher-margin software and services has helped prop up results, but Big Blue faces tough revenue challenges amid continued weak corporate tech spending at home and abroad. Despite a weaker-than-expected showing in the first quarter of 2013, IBM is sticking by its full-year earnings guidance. But as sales continue to slide, the company has indicated job cuts to meet its goals.–T.Z.
Perhaps no one was more disappointed with Berkshire Hathaway’s 2012 results than Warren Buffett, who called his performance “subpar” in his annual letter to shareholders. Over the year, Berkshire’s book value per share rose a substantial 14.4%. But that wasn’t enough to beat the competition, i.e., the S&P 500, which rang in a 16% total return for 2012. Earnings per share jumped 44% from the year before, but Buffett prefers book value as the truer performance measure, because it includes all of Berkshire’s capital gains, realized or unrealized. — T.Z.
One of the biggest crown jewels in Pfizer’s drug portfolio, Lipitor, came off patent in November 2011, resulting in a big profit loss in Q4 of that year (revenue for its primary care medicines also went down 8% in that period). Pfizer, as a result, lowered its 2012 outlook. Despite that, the pharma giant had a banner year: by the end of 2012 it was in fact up 45.6% in profits, with $14.57 billion vs. a mere $10 billion in 2011. That also means it has leapfrogged from No. 17 most profitable in the Fortune 500 last year to No. 11. Not bad for a corporation that only two and a half years ago suffered a damaging and much-scrutinized management shakeup. — Daniel Roberts
A 3.6% decline in profits, to $13.64 billion, means GE slips one slot this year. That was in large part due to trouble from Europe; a stronger dollar meant weaker foreign sales. In addition, revenue from its healthcare division fell. As a result, CEO Jeff Immelt curbed expectations for 2013 by telling investors at the end of 2012 that another rough year was coming. But so far this year GE has formed an interesting strategic partnership with the startup Quirky to design innovative products as well as purchased oil technology company Lufkin Industries for $3 billion. –D.R.
Chipmaker Intel had quite a year in 2011. Its revenue went up 24%, and its PC sales increased by 17% thanks to growth of the entire PC segment in China. It would have been hard to match that kind of year, and indeed, the company couldn’t: its $11 billion in 2012 profit represents a 15% drop (though only a one-slot fall on this list). CEO Paul Otellini has attributed the down year to an overall crimp on the PC market; more people are using tablets instead of laptops, and more than half of Intel’s profits normally come from PC chips. –D.R.
Don’t start heralding the full and healthy return of the housing market, necessarily, but government-owned mortgage lender Freddie Mac did report astounding, record profits of $10.98 billion for 2012. We can’t tout how many slots the company climbed or fell on our Most Profitable list because last year, it wasn’t included—in fact in 2011 it lost more than $5 billion. And it hasn’t been profitable since 2006. Interestingly, Freddie’s 2012 revenue was lower than in 2011, but profits surged because costs went way down (with an improving economy, fewer people were late or delinquent on their payments; that’s good news). –D.R.
Johnson & Johnson
It now looks, in hindsight, like the appointment of new CEO Alex Gorsky in April 2012 was a good thing for the drug-maker: profits in 2012 went up to $10.85 billion, a 12% jump over 2011’s $9.7 billion. In 2011 the company had to handle a number of quality issues and recalls, as well as public and damaging investigations. 2012, in contrast, brought smoother operations, a $19.7 billion buyout of medical device-maker Synthes, and clearly, something of a turnaround. And although Q1 profits for 2013 were down 11% vs. Q1 in 2012, sales were up. — D.R.
Procter & Gamble
Procter and Gamble may boast household brands like Pampers and Gillette, but a stall in innovation and a weak economy have created issues for the company over the past several years. Though P&G found success abroad in countries like China and Russia—and its sales grew to $85.1 billion—profits fell 8.8% over the past year, spurred by a lack of growth in the developed markets that drive the company’s earnings. CEO Bob McDonald announced a 40/20/10 plan last June: His vision for the company focuses resources on its 40 largest and most profitable businesses, its 20 largest innovations, and on the 10 most important developing markets. — Colleen Leahey
Nowadays, it’s rare to see co-founder Larry Page undecorated by the company’s newest gadget, Google Glass. But the Google management team’s obvious support for innovation is paying off. Profits hit $10.8 billion in 2012, up 10.3% from the previous year. The company also had a record sales year, topping off at $52.2 billion. Search remains its core business, and advertising has allowed the tech company to grow quickly—but its $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility last May signals a serious interest in expanding its hardware business. — C.L.
Oracle went to battle with Hewlett-Packard last year after it tried to stop making software for devices using its rival’s Intel Itanium server chip. Oracle lost the suit—and HP is seeking a reported $4 billion in damages. Documents unearthed during the litigation process revealed Oracle EVP Keith Block’s distrust in president Mark Hurd’s hardware plan for the company, pertaining to its 2010 acquisition of Sun Microsystems. (Block eventually resigned.) But the mess didn’t keep the tech giant from having a successful 2012. Oracle’s software business propelled sales, helping profits rise 16.8% to $10 billion. — C.L.
There’s no doubt that Americans love their soda, but their interest flattened in 2012—and Europe’s declined. The beverage company offset this by looking to emerging markets like Russia and Turkey. Profits grew 5% to $9 billion, led by the sale of its Coca-Cola brand. CEO Muhtar Kent is adamantly pushing his 2020 vision, which aims for the company to double revenue by that year. Like all consumer-focused companies, he’s interested in getting millennials to fall in love with Coke before they’re lured by another brand. –C.L.
Philip Morris International
The tobacco company, which generates all its business outside the U.S., saw higher income in 2012 by focusing on growth in emerging markets. The stronger dollar hurt sales, which were up less than 1% to $31.4 billion, but its Marlboro brand kept business solid after Philip Morris launched a new ad campaign that promoted it in 20 markets globally.