April 15, 2010 -- The Fortune 500 -- the biggest companies in America -- boosted their earnings a whopping 335 percent in the last year. It's the second biggest jump since the list began in 1955.
"It's just a staggering amount of money that big companies made in 2009 versus 2008. $330 billion more than the year before. It's just an unprecedented gain," said Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune magazine, which compiles an annual list of top public companies as measured by gross revenue.
But soaring profits aren't quite a reason to celebrate. Record gains for America's most profitable companies come after a year of record losses. The Fortune 500 shed 834,000 jobs last year -- the biggest cutbacks in its history.
"You can really say that the reason why these companies are doing so much better is because they fired a lot of people," Serwer said. "Unfortunately, that is the history of the big business of capitalism."
With that not-so cheery backdrop, here are some highlights from this year's Fortune 500 list:
Fortune 500 List Highlights
No. 1 on the list this year? Wal-Mart regained the top spot.
"Wal-Mart had a good year and maybe that's not surprising," Serwer said, "People really look for value during tough economic times."
Exxon Mobil dropped from No. 1 to No. 2, but still brought in more than $284 billion.
The fall in energy prices kicked six energy companies off the 500 list, but we shouldn't take up a collection just yet, according to "Mad Money's" Jim Cramer.
"We shouldn't worry about any company that sits on a big pool of black stuff and makes a ton of money," Cramer said.
Home builders were also knocked off this year -- another sign of the times.
"In 2007, there were nine homebuilders on the Fortune 500, now there are zero," Serwer said. "They either went bust or their sales dropped so precipitously that they are no longer big enough to be on the Fortune 500. Not 499, off, completely gone."
An indicator of where money is moving, new to the list this year are nine health care companies.
"Health care companies did pretty well. You need your medicine, you need your health care," Serwer said.
Bank of America took the fifth spot, bringing in $150 billion in revenue last year.
"The thing about these big banks is that they do have a huge built-in business, a retail business, that is people like us, consumers, and you see all these Bank of America branches all over the country and they are worth something," Serwer said. "Once you cut through all the storm clouds, there is some stability there."
It was a relatively great year for battered-insurance giant AIG. In the last year, AIG lost $11 billion compared to $99 billion in 2008.
"We thought everything they did was wrong," Cramer said. "Well, it looks like maybe only 78 percent of what they did was wrong, which is why 78 percent wrong is better than 100 percent wrong."
After decades of holding the top spot, General Motors has dropped out of the top 10 completely.
"GM is amazing. They are No. 16 on the Fortune 500, which is a real accomplishment for any company, but not for GM, which for years and years and decades was No. 1," Serwer said. "The biggest company in the Fortune 500, the biggest company in the world, is now only the 16th biggest company in the United States and that is a huge fall from grace."
On the other hand, Ford, which didn't take government money, ranks at No. 8.
"People gave them a lot of credit for not doing that [taking government money]. And I think that really helped them in the marketplace," Serwer said. "There are actually people who bought Fords because they didn't take a bailout from the government."
Apple jumped up to No. 56 on the list, from 71 the previous year.
"What an incredible story," Serwer said. "Steve Jobs runs that company, he introduced the iPad, the iPhone, the iPod Touch -- these products are just amazing and they are growing so fast."
Good news for the economy, but not a business model for the rest of us, Cramer warns.
"The people who run it are too smart, so we don't have their model," he said. "We can just look up at them and maybe we can get some crumbs of wisdom from them."