From U.S. Steel’s $1 billion market cap to Apple’s $1 trillion: a brief history of valuation milestones

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Here we go again, spilling ink over a round-number milestone.

Apple Inc. AAPL, +0.29% became the first U.S.-listed company in history to achieve a $1 trillion market capitalization on Thursday.

The ongoing, and long-running, bull market has been led by huge gains in the stocks of big-name tech behemoths. And Apple’s historic feat — while, yes, just another stat for the history books — can be viewed as the ultimate symbol of Big Tech’s rise over the American corporate icons of old: U.S. Steel, General Electric, Exxon, Wal-Mart.

U.S. Steel X, +0.53%  , generally cited as the first U.S. publicly listed company to reach a $1 billion market capitalization, cleared the milestone immediately upon going public in 1901.

The history of these market-cap distinctions, viewed over time, paints a historical portrait of America’s changing corporate landscape — from the dominance of industrials for most of the 20th century, to the dawn of the tech era in the latter decades of the century, to today’s dominance of technology companies (and Apple’s freshly minted $1 trillion valuation).

The first $100 billion U.S. company

First, a few historical notes: IBM IBM, +3.32% is sometimes identified as the first publicly listed U.S. company to reach the $100 billion milestone, doing so on Aug. 20, 1987. However, IBM never closed above that threshold, according to FactSet’s data analysis.

Meanwhile, the old AT&T Corp. T, +1.32% (before it was acquired by SBC Communications, which then took the AT&T name, in 2005) closed above $100 billion in November 1992, according to FactSet market-cap tracking. However, the Dow Jones Market Data Group was not able to independently confirm that number when calculating the market cap manually using historical share counts and share pricing on that date. This may be as a result of corporate actions taken by the company in 2005, but it appears the available data leave room for doubt at this milestone level.

AFP/Getty Images
Pictured from left at an NYSE ceremony marking the centennial of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in May 1996 are the exchange’s then-chairman, Richard Grasso; then–Dow Jones CEO Peter Kahn; Jack Welch, then the CEO of General Electric; and a man dressed as Dow Jones co-founder Charles Henry Dow. The opening bell was rung by Welch, in recognition of the fact that GE was, at that time, the only surviving company among the 12 listed in the first average. GE was removed as a Dow component this June.

Which brings us to General Electric GE, -0.23% circa 1995. U.S. stocks were about halfway through the bull market that began in the early 1990s and ended with the dot-com bust of 2000. On Sept. 14, 1995, GE crossed the $100 billion mark, making it the first officially recorded to have done so.

The industrial conglomerate, in many ways, had the kind of stock success story in the 20th century that Apple is having in the 21st.

Recently, however, GE’s stock has come upon harder times. In June, GE was booted as a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.54% replaced by Walgreens Boots Alliance WBA, +0.36%  , after having been a component of the Dow average at its 1896 inception and having retained a roster spot for the past 111 straight years.

The managing director of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices said of the move: “The U.S. economy has changed: consumer, finance, health care and technology companies are more prominent today, and the relative importance of industrial companies is less.”

GE’s market cap currently stands at about $114.5 billion.

The first $500 billion U.S. company
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Bill Gates, then chairman and CEO of Microsoft, gestures toward a handheld device running Microsoft Windows during a keynote address at a 1999 convention in Las Vegas.

On July 16, 1999, Microsoft Corp. MSFT, +0.44% became the first U.S. company to reach a market cap of $500 billion. It stayed above $500 billion for just two trading sessions, before dipping back below that level. This was, of course, the heyday of the dot-com boom. Stocks were hitting record heights as solid quarterly reports and sky’s-the-limit forecasts rolled in. The day Microsoft hit $500 billion in value, the Nasdaq Composite Index COMP, +0.12% notched a third consecutive record finish. Shares of the software company climbed 5.4% that day to a then-record high of $99.44, on expectations that it was close to creating a separate stock to track its Microsoft Network business.

Microsoft actually went on to again hit $500 billion in market value, and then surpass it to reach $607 billion in market cap, in December 1999. But in the spring of 2000, the bubble popped — and Microsoft finished that year with a market cap of $231 billion.

Today, the stock is experiencing a resurgence, and its market cap sits at about $818 billion, the fourth highest among U.S. companies.

The first $1 trillion U.S. company

Apple’s $1 trillion milestone came after the company reported better-than-expected quarterly results. The company also delivered an upbeat forecast for its September quarter, when it typically releases new iPhone models. In a concerted two-day push to $1 trillion, Apple added $82 billion in market value.

Don’t miss: Apple makes history with $1 trillion market cap, but take a look at what happened to the first company to get there

The build-up to $1 trillion wasn’t without drama. When Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, -0.60% reported earnings last week and saw its stock jump, some — including a majority of MarketWatch readers participating in an informal poll — thought the company would beat Apple to the trillion-dollar punch. Amazon’s market capitalization now sits at roughly $873 billion, ahead of Alphabet Inc. GOOGL, -0.24% GOOG, -0.20% , with its $849 million market cap.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, for his part, is downplaying the $1 trillion milestone, saying it’s “not the most important measure of our success.” Not to mention co-founder Steve Wozniak, who put it like this: “Of course I’m proud of Apple, but I don’t measure the world by human simplifications like round numbers. A company is great because it is great.”

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