Technology giant Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and oil super major Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) are trading the title of second most valuable U.S. company back and forth. Earlier on Friday, Google took the lead, with a market cap of $393.5 billion versus $392.6 billion for Exxon Mobil. Later in the trading day, Exxon Mobil reclaimed the lead, pulling ahead $395.3 billion to $392 billion.
The horse race for the title is somewhat superficial — the two companies don’t operate in remotely the same industries — but the jockeying does say something about the evolving significance of each company in the modern economy. Exxon Mobil can trace its roots back to John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, a lineage more than a century in the making. Google can trace its roots back less than 20 years to a research project at Stanford University. Exxon Mobil has made its fortune by servicing the world’s insatiable need for energy, while Google has made its fortune serving the world’s insatiable need for information.
The treatment of these resources in economies around the world has changed dramatically over the past few decades, largely thanks to technological innovation and globalization. The energy industry is as strong as it has ever been, but demand for energy is increasing at a slower rate than demand for information. Greater efficiencies and alternative sources are servicing much of the new demand from developed nations, forcing the U.S. energy producer to look overseas at developing economies for growth opportunities. What growth there is to claim is also extremely expensive, as exploration and drilling for oil and gas is capital-intensive.
Google is growing at a frenzied pace in order to cope with a slowdown in revenue from its biggest business, Internet search. Data compiled by Bloomberg show that Google has spent about $17 billion on acquisitions in the past two years, outpacing the combined acquisition spending of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), Apple (NASAQ:AAPL), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN).
Like Google, though, Exxon Mobil has had to spend enormous amounts of money in order to stay on top. The company believes that demand for energy will increase by 30 percent by 2040, and the company announced a $185 billion, five-year investment plan in 2012 in order to prepare itself to service that demand. Exxon will spend $37 billion each year through 2016, but it’s unclear if even this enormous spending will help it grow any faster than Google.
Market cap is tied to valuation, and Exxon Mobil’s stock price has increased just 1.7 percent over the past year. Google stock, on the other hand, is up nearly 50 percent.