You know them. Chances are you buy their products. And if you own a stock mutual fund or exchange traded fund ((NYSEMKT:ETF)), odds are overwhelming they're in your portfolio, whether you know it or not.
They're America's biggest companies by market value. Reaching that rarified air means each one of them is a phenomenal business success story as well.
All have rewarded their shareholders with massive returns in the past. The question now is whether they'll continue to grow and add value for their shareholders.
Corporate history is littered with the bones of former colossi that, like ancient Rome, were eventually overrun. Only one member of the original Dow Jones Industrial Average is still a company today. More than half the current 30 companies were added in the 1990s or later.
There's little doubt some of today's top 20 will lose their lofty perches. Others will stay dominant for decades to come, and as such will reliably keep building wealth for investors. Here's my view of which companies will wax and wane in the years ahead.
In some businesses, growing scale conveys overwhelming advantage. So far, that's been a common denominator in the success of all of the companies in my table (see "Thinking Big").
One measure of dominance was their ability to grow revenue 15.7% on average from the beginning of 2008 through the end of 2009. They showed this remarkable resilience, despite the worst market crash, credit crunch and recession to hit the U.S. in 80 years, a combined catastrophe that claimed more than a few of their competitors.
Oil prices at one point slid from more than $150 a barrel to barely $30. But despite some hits to revenue, Chevron Corp (CVX) and Exxon Mobil (XOM) actually raised its dividend 17.2% and 25%, respectively over that time. Meanwhile, revenue for the five information technology companies in the table surged 31.5%, as many competitors vanished.
If anything, today's 20 are in better shape to weather a full-scale market setback than in 2008. Most have shed operating risk to reduce exposure to another debacle. With the exception of the companies with financial sector exposure, they have minimal refinancing needs between now and the end of 2014. If credit markets should tighten, they could postpone new bond issues until they loosen up again.
That could prove a stark contrast to many smaller companies in their respective sectors, should conditions tighten in 2013. It's already a huge advantage over many European companies that are struggling with high interest rates amid the continent's austerity crisis.
Even stocks of the best-prepared companies fall in a full-blown market selloff. And not all of the 20 have fully recovered from the shellacking they took in 2008. Over the past five years, however, the group has returned an average of 33.8%, more than four times the S&P 500's return over the same period.
Those who own these 20 either directly or through funds and ETFs can rest easy- the underlying businesses are solid and the stocks will recover when the market does this time around. But will they stay on top for the next five years?
Each of these companies owes no small measure of success to being able to make bigness work for them. Conversely, size stopped being an advantage for companies that have fallen from the top ranks over the years.
Some giants fall from grace due to management miscalculation. Despite operating one of the world's most dynamic engineering franchises, for example, General Electric (GE) was nearly dragged into bankruptcy in 2008 by its GE Capital division, the brainchild of once-lauded former CEO Jack Welch.
Technological change is another great equalizer. The U.S. Big Three auto companies circa the 1980s still dominated global sales. But size lost its advantage when consumers demanded more efficient cars, allowing Toyota (TM) to storm the American market and reap the spoils. Today, Toyota's $148 billion market capitalization is nearly twice that of General Motors (GM) and Ford Motor (F) combined, but ironically it's the latter two that are gathering market share.
Not surprisingly, the five companies on the list from the Information Technology sector are at greatest risk to disruptive technologies. IBM (IBM) is a rare case of a tech sector leader that's been able to bridge generations to stay ahead with its products and services. The others have yet to be so tested, but continue to grow sales and markets.
Conversely, energy stocks Chevron and Exxon Mobil are least at risk to technological change. Their dominance stems from holding vast reserves of oil-still the most important commodity in the modern world-backed by financial power that bests that of most countries.
The rest of the companies on the list are somewhere between utility-like revenue security and tech-like volatility. AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ), for example, face a host of competitors in the U.S. wireless and broadband communications industry, as well as sometimes hostile federal regulators. But their ability to spend $20 billion plus a year on networks continues to widen their advantage.
As they become bigger in size, pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Merck (MRK) and Pfizer (PFE) launch more treatments to build revenue streams. But they also face fierce global competition when their patents expire and regulatory threats from cost containment.
For Wells Fargo (WFC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM), staying healthy during the financial crisis of 2008 moved them miles past the competition. The same is true for Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) in the insurance business. The debacle of 2008 also proved, however, that the biggest financials always fall hardest.
There's certainly nothing essential about what Coca Cola (KO), Philip Morris International (PM) and Procter & Gamble (PG) sell. Rather they depend on advertising to sell their American brand names to ever-changing generations of global consumers.
So which of these companies will stay on the Top 20 list? My best guess is most will for years. That includes GE, which appears to have rediscovered its roots just when the world needs engineering solutions more than ever. If you're looking for more growth-oriented opportunities in 2013, see my Growth Stocks report.