Numbers may not lie, but they also don't always tell the whole story. Thus, there can be several different answers to the simple question of what is the biggest company in the world. The fact is that the answer depends on the metric used to measure it -- whether it's revenue, profits, assets, or market value.
The biggest company in the world by revenue
If revenue is our guide, Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT) would be king, as it generated $484.7 billion in sales over the past year. It leads the pack by a wide mark as its sales are $57.1 billion, or 13.3% higher than Sinopec, which is second. Sales, however, don't tell the whole story as Wal-Mart's sales are lower margin. Because of this its profit is much smaller (ranked 18th) as well as its market value (ranked 12th ), which is why a case can be made for other companies being the world's biggest.
The biggest company in the world by profit
As I mentioned at the opening, numbers don't lie, but they certainly don't always tell the whole story. That's the case when looking at the largest company in the world by profit. Taking that honor is Vodafone, which tallied an astronomical $70.4 billion in profit over the past year. What's remarkable about that number is the fact it did this on just $66.3 billion in sales. What story isn't being told by these numbers is the fact that Vodafone's profit is inflated by the sale its 45% stake in Verizon Wireless to Verizon, resulting in an enormous net profit.
Because Vodafone's profitability was due to a one-time item, it's probably best to dismiss it and move down the list. That would elevate Chinese bank ICBC to the top spot as its $44.8 billion in profit was just ahead of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) $44.5 billion in profit.
The biggest company in the world by assets
Another common metric that is used to measure size is to look at assets. By that measure, ICBC would again lead the pack as it holds $3.322 trillion in assets. That's almost $100 billion in assets more than Fannie Mae, which is second in assets.
The problem with using assets as a metric for the world's largest company is that it really favors banks and other financial institutions. In fact, there aren't any non-banks in the top 50 companies in the world that are ranked by assets and the first non-bank on the list is GE, which isn't entirely non-bank due to its financial services division.
The biggest company in the world by market value
A final measurement of company size is its market value. Here, the clear leader is Apple as its market value is currently larger than its next two rivals, Google and ExxonMobil, combined. That being said, market value only measures publicly traded companies. One of the largest non-public companies is Saudi Aramco, which is the national oil company of Saudi Arabia. It currently produces two-and-a-half times as much oil as Exxon, suggesting it would be more than double Exxon's size and, despite the fact that the price of oil is half of what it was, the case could be made that it would be larger than Apple if it were publicly traded.
Putting it all together
Because no metric is perfect and each gives a different answer, it is hard to label a winner. However, as it has done for the past 13 years, Forbes puts out its Global 2000 listing of the largest companies in the world. It uses all four of the above metrics and scores companies to get a composite score. As a result of its methodology, it ranks ICBC as the biggest company in the world. So, that's the easy answer for a question that could have any number of correct answers.
Matt DiLallo owns shares of Apple and Verizon Communications and has the following options: long January 2017 $55 calls on Wal-Mart Stores and short September 2017 $75 calls on Wal-Mart Stores. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Apple and Google (A and C shares). It owns shares of ExxonMobil and General Electric Company, and recommends Verizon Communications. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.