Earlier this month, Fortune magazine’s annual list of the top 500 U.S. companies was released. The big news was Walmart’s continued lead over No. 2 Exxon Mobil for the second straight year. Both earned billions of dollars in profits.
Now, holding a spot on the Fortune 500 list puts a business in august company, but that isn’t always synonymous with hitting high benchmarks for capital gains, significant revenue or expansion. Each year, some companies manage to stay on the list despite experiencing profound problems.
Indeed, last year, two floundering firms nearly matched Walmart’s huge $16.4 billion in profits with the magnitude of their losses: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the ailing mortgage lenders knocked down by the mortgage crisis of 2007 that heralded the Great Recession, lost more than $14 billion each.
How can a company lose so much money and yet still earn a spot on the prestigious Fortune 500? Because size matters: Fortune magazine ranks companies by gross revenue, not by profits or losses. Therefore, as long as the company’s total revenue hit the high notes, they can still cling to their bragging rights of being a Fortune 500 company.
Here, then, are the world’s largest companies, with the world’s largest losses.
Gallery: Clinging to the 500
1. Freddie Mac
Fortune 500 Rank: 20
Loss: $14.025 billion
The troubled Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, aka Freddie Mac, is a government-sponsored enterprise chartered by Congress to stabilize the nation’s residential mortgage markets. However, despite the injection of massive bailout loans and government care, its $14 billion loss in 2010 has put a sledge hammer through its hopes of recovery. In fact, in March 2011, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called on Congress to pass legislation within two years that would dissolve both Freddie Mac and its larger sibling, Fannie Mae.
2. Fannie Mae
Fortune 500 rank: 5
Loss: $14.014 billion
Back in June 2010, after its stock had traded below $1 a share for more than 30 days, mortgage giant Fannie Mae announced that it was being delisted from the NYSE, and little has given its shareholders reason to smile since then. For the first quarter of 2011, the company reported a loss of $8.7 billion, and has asked for another $8.5 billion in federal aid. The most recent losses came as a 1.8% decline in home prices around the country led more homeowners to default on loans that Fannie Mae had guaranteed.
3. Sprint Nextel Corp (S)
Fortune 500 rank: 85
Loss: $3.465 billion
Sprint Nextel, the third-largest U.S. wireless operator, has been struggling to hold onto its customers over the past few years, mainly due to complaints about poor service. The company has been aggressively working to improve its customer care and rebuild its image, and those efforts seem to be working: In the first quarter of 2011, Sprint Nextel reported net subscriber growth of 1.1 million customers — its highest growth in five years — bringing its total customer base to 51 million.
4. Energy Future Holdings Corp.
Fortune 500 rank: 292
Loss: $2.812 billion
Energy Future is a privately held energy company consisting primarily of TXUEnergy, the largest nonregulated retail electricity provider in Texas, and Luminant, which is engaged largely in power generation, wholesale power marketing and energy trading. Luminant suffered massive problems, outages and shutdowns in 2010. But broader issues certainly impacted Energy Future’s revenues in 2010 as well, among them concerns about U.S. dependency on foreign oil and consumers’ generally more conservative energy use during the continued recession.
5. Bank of America (BAC)
Fortune 500 rank: 9
Loss: $2.238 billion
Bank of America is the largest bank holding company in the United States, a position it reached through a series of big acquisitions. But the 2008 purchases of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial have left it struggling with a host of expensive problems. In 2010, Bank of America was accused of defrauding local government organizations, schools and hospitals through the illegal investment of municipal bond sales and proceedings. Douglas Campbell, a former bank official, pleaded guilty to antitrust, conspiracy and fraud charges, and more executives within the company still under indictment and investigation.
Fortune 500 rank: 474
Loss in Millions: $1.940 billion
AbitibiBowater, the third largest pulp and paper company in North America, has been dealing with reputational damage from its destruction of intact forest land and wildlife habitats. Its failure to properly manage large areas of old-growth Canadian forest lost the company major contracts and led to its filing for bankruptcy in 2009. Today, AbitibiBowater has successfully emerged from creditor protection after a 2010 reorganization and rebuilding effort. The transition was supported by unionized workers and aided politically in Canada, which eased regulations regarding pensions and job protection. A five-year contract was approved that included a 10% wage cut with increases to resume in 2012, a deal that is allowing the company to continue to recover.
7. MGM Resorts International (MGM)
Fortune 500 rank: 380
Loss: $1.437 billion
MGM Resorts International is the new name of MGM Mirage, a change made to reflect its worldwide expansion strategy. The gaming and hotel company owns some of the biggest names on the Las Vegas Strip, including MGM Grand, The Mirage, and the Monte Carlo, as well as the Luxor, the Bellagio, and Mandalay Bay. Its big loss reflects the overall weakness in Las Vegas’s tourism industry. Revenue per available room from its Las Vegas properties decreased in 2010, and the company’s bottom line suffered due to asset write-downs at its CityCenter property.
8. Williams (WMB)
Fortune 500 rank: 257
Loss: $1.097 billion
Williams is an integrated natural gas company that produces, gathers, processes and transports clean-burning natural gas to heat homes and power electric generation across the country. The company underwent a massive restructuring in 2010 that included a reorganization of its widespread pipeline holdings in Williams Partners LP.
9. PulteGroup (PHM)
Fortune 500 rank: 486
Loss: $1.097 billion
PulteGroup is a home builder with operations in 60 markets and 28 states, and dwindling demand for new homes took a serious toll on the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based company last year. In addition, Pulte Homes received a public reprimand in 2010 from the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation after it found that the company had used substandard construction practices.
10. Boston Scientific (BSX)
Fortune 500 rank: 305
Loss: $1.065 billion
Boston Scientific develops and manufactures medical devices used in treating wide array of conditions. Boston Scientific had to stop U.S. shipments of its implantable cardioverter defibrillators in March 2010 after it failed to submit paperwork to regulators on manufacturing changes, but resumed shipments in mid-April after regaining clearance. In addition, a recall resulted for previously shipped devices and caused the company to take a bit hit on sales. Boston Scientific also recently acquired competitor Guidant for $27 billion.