This Fall, Apple Has A Shot At Becoming The Most Valuable Company In The World

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In January, we noted that Apple surged past an amazing $300 billion market cap, making them by far the most valuable tech company in the world. In fact, the valuation made them the second most valuable company in the world period. But at the same time, we noted that it would likely be pretty hard for them to catch number one: Exxon.

At the time, Exxon was roughly $75 billion ahead of Apple. And in the following months, while Apple’s stock began to stagnate a bit, Exxon’s kept rising, pushing their value way past $400 billion. But in recent months, Exxon’s stock has also begun to stagnate. Meanwhile, in the past few weeks, Apple’s stock is like a rocket once again. Today, the stock closed a new all-time high, just under $375 a share, as 9to5 Mac points out. And it’s trading even higher in the after-hours market, as anticipation builds for Apple’s latest quarterly earnings tomorrow.

Apple’s market cap is now just under $350 billion. Meanwhile, Exxon’s cap is just under $410 billion. With momentum once again, Apple is gaining ground. And if, as expected, Apple’s beats the Street again tomorrow, the stock should go even higher — after stellar earnings last week, Google’s stock added about $20 billion in value. This all points to Apple having a very real shot at becoming the most valuable public company in the world in the fall.

Obviously, there are a lot of variables at play here. For one thing, who knows what will happen in the oil industry. The summer driving season will be winding down, but any number of things can cause gas prices to still fluctuate either way, and that will obviously have an impact on Exxon’s stock price. But let’s assume for the sake of this argument that Exxon’s stock remains roughly flat, as it has been the past several months. And their market cap remains around $400 billion.

If Apple does indeed announce good numbers tomorrow, their market cap will almost for sure go shooting right past $350 billion. (Though, any small miss or weak guidance could easily send the numbers the other way as well.) Regardless, tomorrow isn’t actually that important. More important is the coming weeks and months.

First and foremost, Apple will release their next operating system, OS X Lion, shortly. Promised before the end of July, rumors have it appearing this week. Alongside that, rumors also have new MacBook Airs appearing. Considering that the majority of Macs that Apple now sells are notebooks, this should mean big business for them in the coming quarter.

More importantly, Apple is also widely believed to be preparing a new iPhone, for release this fall alongside iOS 5. There’s still some arguments as to whether this will be an “iPhone 4S” or an “iPhone 5″, but regardless, it’s going to sell a massive amount of units. It will be the first time that Apple releases a new device on both AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks at the same time. And there are whispers that at least one of the other major U.S. carriers — Sprint or T-Mobile — could be added as well (assuming, of course, that AT&T and T-Mobile don’t merge before then).

There’s also talk of Apple preparing a cheaper version of the iPhone that would be sold around the world without contract. This pre-paid iPhone would mean less in the U.S. where carrier subsidization rules, but worldwide, where pre-paid is huge, this could mean more big business.

Then there’s the talk of Apple partnering with China Mobile for the iPhone, as The Wall Street Journal details today. As the largest carrier in China, China Mobile offers up, oh, 600 million potential new customers. For Apple’s bottom line, such access could be a real game-changer. But again, the Chinese market is different. And the iPhone will be a very expensive buy for many (it has been sold through China’s number two carrier, China Unicom, for a couple years).

Then there are the wildcards.

We had heard several months ago that Apple was lining things up for a “big fall surprise“. We were later told that would be a new version of the iPad. More details have trickled out since then, including a lot of talk of it being an iPad with a “Retina” display. We haven’t heard too much recently, but the latest word was that supply constraints may have delayed the device for a couple of months. Still, we believe Apple is looking to release this device before the end of the year.

And considering how far ahead Apple is in the tablet space right now, a new iPad with a Retina display should really excite investors.

Apple is also undoubtedly going to hold their annual music event this fall, which should see the release of a new iPod touch (unless the cheap, pre-paid iPhone is the new iPod touch). We should hear more about iTunes in the cloud as well. And perhaps an updated Apple TV, and other new iPods (the last hurrah?).

And, of course, Apple always has the ability to surprise with something totally out of left field. All of these things should excite investors and keep the stock chugging along. And if that happens, it should only be a matter of months before Apple passes Exxon as the most valuable company in the world (again, assuming for the sake of argument, that Exxon remains stagnant).

When we predicted that Apple would pass Microsoft in value in March 2010, many people were up in arms, thinking it wouldn’t happen. It took just two months. Meanwhile, the rhetoric started that market cap really means nothing, and Microsoft still had more revenues and was far more profitable than Apple. Then they lost the revenue title. And the profitablilty title.

Apple’s market cap is now a full $120 billion higher than Microsoft’s. To look at it another way, Intel’s entire market cap is $118 billion. Or, another way, Apple is now worth more than Microsoft, HP, and Dell combined — with about $17 billion left over.

Point being, while market cap doesn’t mean everything about a company, these numbers and trends are a pretty good indicator of performance. If and when Apple becomes the most valuable company in the world, there will be a very good reason for that. And this fall is shaping up nicely for that.

Update: Well, it didn’t even take until the fall.