Here Are the Big Trends Shaping the 2016 Fortune 500
There are a few events that have had profound impacts on the landscape of American business: The tech meltdown following the turn of the century is one, as is the financial crisis that struck half a decade later. Now we’re witnessing another: the collapse in the price of oil and virtually all other commodities—a convulsion that sent earnings for the Fortune 500’s energy sector into a wrenching reversal, with reverberations through every major industry.
The leading names in fracking, heroes of America’s energy revolution, today are gushing losses, and two of the 500’s perennial top moneymakers, Exxon (XOM) and Chevron (CVX), just delivered their lowest profits in more than a dozen years. Yet as this year’s list demonstrates, the oil story isn’t a disaster for all. It’s a tonic for industries that suffered from high-priced fuel, including airlines, truckers, automakers, hotel chains, and homebuilders. “The pain is extremely concentrated,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The benefits are widespread.”
The profits of the companies in the Fortune 500 this year provide a striking illustration of the interplay between losers and winners. After garnering total earnings of $116 billion in 2014, the energy companies on this year’s list had combined losses of $44 billion, after a stunning $660 billion drop in sales, or 33%, year over year. By contrast, the leading sector for profits, in a back-to-the-future switch, is the finance industry. After its earnings turned sharply negative in 2008, the category (encompassing banks, insurers, and Wall Street firms) regained the top spot in 2012 and stayed there, accounting for 26.5% of Fortune 500 profits for 2015. Record-low interest rates have prevented the industry from quite matching its pre-crash peak, but cost reductions and a substantial decline in defaults have padded balance sheets.
The 500’s rising star is J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM), which lifted earnings 12.3% last year, to $24.4 billion, replacing Exxon as the list’s second-biggest earner. The top spot went to Apple (AAPL), flush from soaring sales of its iPhone 6. It was Apple’s spectacular performance (2015 profits: $53.4 billion, an increase of almost $14 billion) that propelled the tech sector to its best year ever, registering 19.3% of the 500’s earnings and maintaining its second-place ranking. Health care, snatching the third slot from energy, also notched a record as the aging of America and a parade of breakthrough therapies swelled earnings for biotech leaders Gilead (49.6%) (GILD), Amgen (34.5%) (AMGN), and Biogen (20.9%) (BIIB).
All told, the oil price crash shaved $105 billion off the 500’s total earnings, which fell 11.1% from last year. But America’s companies remain robustly profitable by historical standards; 2015 earnings were 7% of sales, far above the 5.7% average of the past two decades. That’s down from recent years’ outsize margins, which reached a record 8.9% in 2013 and are likely to keep shrinking as a tightening labor market finally forces companies to raise wages and businesses reach the limits of gains from slashing costs.
Tanking oil prices have some clear upsides. The slump has been a boon for U.S. consumers, filling their pockets with an estimated $400 billion in extra cash. Americans are spending much of that on big-ticket items, notably cars and houses. In 2015, GM (GM) and Ford (F) lifted their profits by 145% and 131%, respectively. Homebuilders D.R. Horton (DHI) and Lenna (LEN) posted big profit gains of 41% and 26%, respectively. And the home-improvement sector is thriving, with Home Depot (HD) profits climbing 10.5%, to a record $7 billion.
But more than any other, the industry that’s taken off on the wings of cheap oil is airlines. Typically fuel accounts for about a third of airlines’ operating expenses. Last year it dropped to just over one-fifth. From 2014 to 2015, fuel costs for the Big Four airlines fell from $41 billion to $25 billion. That helped multiply total earnings almost fourfold from 2014, to $21.7 billion, with American Airlines (AAL) up 164%, United (UAL) rising 548%, Delta (DAL) up 587%, and Southwest (LUV) gaining 92%.
This year, as with other come-to-God moments in recent economic history, the makeup of the largest U.S. companies has shifted. In both the dotcom bust and the financial crisis, cataclysms in a single industry decimated Fortune 500 profits. But this time corporate America has shown remarkable resilience. It’s a dramatic story that the 2016 500 list tells in vivid detail.
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A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “500 Profits Run Out of Gas.”