As Apple overtook Exxon Mobil this week as the most valuable company in the U.S., tech analysts were crowing about the striking turnaround of a company that was thought to be on its last legs in the late-1990s.
"It's one of the great growth stories that I've ever seen," veteran Apple analyst Charlie Wolf of Needham Securities told HuffPost. "It's gone from an $8 billion company in the early part of the past decade to where it is now a hundred billion in terms of revenue. Apple has shown enormous profitability and is posting astonishing growth numbers."
For outsiders, the race between the underdog tech company and the old-school oil giant represented the ultimate 21st century battle. With Apple beating out Exxon in terms of market value -- for now -- it seemed to point to an American economy where innovation and new technology could one day win out over fossil fuels.
But the contest between the two companies might have more to do with market forces than the fundamentals of either of the two companies.
"The big picture story is that the oil and tech sectors are susceptible in different ways to economic trends that are going around the world," said Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
David Kreutzer, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Exxon's recent dip was mostly caused by broader market expectations.
"Exxon's prices fluctuate with oil prices," Kreutzer said. And "oil prices go up and down with expectations of economic growth."
But Wolf lauded Apple for its ability to develop revolutionary products such as the iMac, iPhone, iPod and iPad.
"Apple has outgrown the PC market for 21 straight quarters," Wolf said, That's the halo effect of the iPhone, the iPod, the iPad, which are picking up converts all over the place. Especially in the Far East."
But for all of Apple's innovation, Exxon, which has been the Fortune 500's most profitable company every year in the last half-decade, is unlikely to lose its place at the top of the market any time soon, according to Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Exxon is going to continue to be a mega force in the world energy markets," he said.
As fossil fuels become more limited in supply, energy companies, including Exxon, are using methods such as ultra-deep water drilling and sub-salt drilling to find new reserves, according to Frank A. Verrastro, the director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"You've also started to see a movement in shale gas," he said. "A lot of these oil companies have seen the writing on the wall that the world is changing, so they need to adjust their strategy."
Despite the pressures of climate change, the global economy's dependence on oil isn't likely to wane anytime soon, Green said.
"There is the inescapable reality that even if we didn’t use oil for energy, it is the basis for our entire chemistry," said Green. "From fertilizer to the materials used to make, well, everything, our chemistry is petrochemistry. There is nothing on the horizon that is going to displace that. There's no magic gizmo that does that for you -- and there's no evidence that there's anything around the corner that will."
But in the end -- however lopsided the comparison -- enthusiasm for Apple's rise could not be dampened. "What is Exxon?" said Wolf. "It's really tied to the price of oil -- it's such an old-line company, it's not tied to innovation. And it will continue to grow with oil prices."
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