NEW YORK — Investors seem to think you want an iPad more than oil, as Apple Inc. became the most valuable company in the United States, surpassing Exxon Mobil Corp. on Wednesday.
Apple briefly flirted with the top spot on Tuesday afternoon before settling back slightly below the oil giant.
Wednesday was the first time that Apple managed to stay No. 1 after the stock market closed.
Apple's stock fell 2.8 percent to close at $363.69, which brings the iPhone and iPad maker's market capitalization to $337 billion. Exxon's stock fell 4.4 percent to close at $68.03. That gives the oil company a market cap of $331 billion.
The change of the guard took place two days after global markets saw its worst fall since 2008 as investors worried about the U.S. credit downgrade and the possibility of another recession. Exxon had been the most valuable company since 2005, and Apple only took No. 2 in May 2010 when it surpassed Microsoft Corp.
The power shift, while largely symbolic, is a substantial milestone for Apple, which has enjoyed a triumphant comeback since the 1990s, when it struggled to stay afloat before Steve Jobs returned to take the helm.
But Gleacher & Co. analyst Brian Marshall says Apple is giving investors something that has never been seen before. Apple's numbers are huge, with nearly $30 billion in revenue in the latest quarter, for example. Yet Marshall said the 35-year-old company is “growing like a startup.”
Apple grew its net income 70 percent to $14 billion and its revenue 52 percent to $65 billion in the fiscal year that ended last September. A year earlier, even as other companies — though not Exxon — were reeling from the economic meltdown, Apple's earnings grew 35 percent and its revenue 14 percent.
Exxon, which set a record in 2008 for the highest quarterly earnings by any company, has limited prospects, as its growth is tethered to oil prices and new oil discovery.
Apple's growth is limited only by innovation. Investors expect it to grow as long as it keeps making products that people want.