Exxon leaves Apple in its dust

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Chart: CNNMoney

It wasn’t too long ago that Apple appeared to be on the verge of imminently passing Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company in the United States. But thanks to a recent spike in oil prices, Exxon has widened its lead by a healthy margin — to nearly $100 billion.

Exxon reported a fourth-quarter profit Monday of $9.25 billion. That was up 53% from a year ago and gushed past analysts’ forecasts. As a result, Exxon’s stock is up 2% today and the company now has a market value of about $405 billion. Apple’s market value is around $311 billion.

Back in July, I pointed out that Apple was worth only about $50 billion less than Exxon. By late September, my Fortune colleague and uber-Apple blogger Philip Elmer-Dewitt noted that the gap had shrunk to just $25 billion.

Since then, Exxon has been on a tear. The stock is up almost 20% in the past three months. It’s not as if Apple has been a slouch. Its stock has gained 10% during the same time frame.

Will Apple eventually catch Exxon? I think so. Apple’s got more momentum on its side than Exxon. Analysts are forecasting profit growth, on average, of nearly 21% annually over the next few years for Apple compared to estimates of 12% annual earnings increases for Exxon.

But Apple won’t top Exxon as soon as many in the media (including me) first thought, especially if more turmoil in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East pushes oil prices even higher.

It just goes to show that as cool (and profitable) as selling iPads, iPhones and iEverything else may be, there’s not yet an app that I know of that can cause oil prices to fall below $80 a barrel with a mere click. So it looks like Exxon’s tiger in the tank may continue to take a bite out of Apple in the market cap race for a little while longer. — Paul