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Here are some of Wall Street's biggest investor cash cows, by decade

Key Points
  • Over a course of years, corporate titans like Exxon, Apple and Microsoft have put a lot of money in the pockets of shareholders.
  • Using Factset data, CNBC found the top 10 companies with the best track record with investors have returned nearly $3 trillion to investors collectively.
Cash Monsters All Time SChoen 7-13-2018

Exxon-Mobile. Apple. AT&T. Procter and Gamble. JPMorgan Chase.

These corporate giants preside over businesses that pour money into the economy in numerous ways. As publicly traded companies widely held by investors around the world, one of their major functions is to return value to shareholders — which many of them have done for years.

Despite the daily ups and downs of the stock market — and some very public spats with investors who didn't think management was doing enough to maximize value —  some of Wall Street's marquee names have a lengthy track record of doling out billions to owners of their stock. In fact, CNBC found the top 10 companies with the best track record with investors have returned nearly $3 trillion to investors collectively over their history.

Using data from Factset, CNBC took a look by decade to find out which of Corporate America's behemoths have given the most back to their shareholders. The S&P 500 Index companies on this list were ranked on the basis of the total cash returned, calculated as a sum of the total dividend and total share buyback. 

The go-go 1990s

Cash Monsters 1990s Schoen 7-13-2018

The economic boom that took place during the decade saw Exxon – the largest of the U.S.’s ‘Big Oil’ companies – return more money to investors than any other corporate entity. That feat was accomplished on what was the smallest fraction of any company’s total sales. Microsoft and General Electric weren't far behind, and as a percentage of sales even outpaced Exxon.

Exxon stays on top, but Apple creeps higher in the 2000s

Cash Monsters 2000+ Schoen 7-13-2018

By the time "Y2K" concerns were wiped away, the technological revolution had begun to dominate American households and industries. Legacy tech giants like Microsoft and Apple arrived on the big stage, and were a boon for investor portfolios. The Seattle-based software giant returned nearly a third of its sales that decade to shareholders, in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. However, Exxon still led the way, while the iPhone's growing ubiquity powered Apple into the top 3.

Apple finally dethrones Exxon

Cash Monsters 2010s Schoen 7-13-2018

This decade's disruptive forces including the 2008 financial crisis, record low interest rates and the rapid technological innovation cycle helped companies amass huge sums of cash. Apple became famous for stockpiling vast amounts of cash, generating the most cash for shareholders this decade, and displacing both Exxon and Microsoft in the process. Meanwhile, GE's well-publicized woes yanked the industrial giant's position down to the lower half of the big return list.