(Apple, Wal-Mart and Berkshire Hathaway article updated from March 17 with new information on the market-cap of all the companies, as well as news related to the passing of an Apple director.)

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A game of market capitalization leapfrog has been playing out between some of the biggest U.S. companies.

Last week, it was noted by some market commentators that Apple's ( AAPL) share rally -- as the iPad made its way to the launch pad -- had helped Apple's market capitalization to leap ahead of retail empire Wal-Mart ( WMT) and legendary investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B).

The market capitalization crown didn't remain on Apple's head for long. A Wal-Mart rally through the first two days of the week, begun on the strength of Citigroup upping Wal-Mart shares to a buy, put some distance between Wal-Mart, Apple and Berkshire, in the market cap race.

Apple's market cap was back down to $203.2 billion, versus close to a $213 billion market capitalization for Wal-Mart at the open on Thursday morning.

Apple shares have lost more than $2 over the first three trading days of the week, after ending last week on a high note. While Apple shares were having trouble defending themselves this week, Taiwanese cellphone maker HTC announced on Thursday that it is planning a vigorous defense against a patent infringement charge that it lifted Apple's iPhone technology, with the CEO of HTC making his first public comments about the Apple lawsuit and saying he was confident that the Taiwanese cell phone maker would prevail in the legal tussle.

Apple also received sad news on Thursday morning. Apple director Jerome York, a director since 1997, suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in a Michigan hospital. York was a former CFO of both IBM ( IBM) and Chrysler.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs put out a statement saying, "Jerry joined Apple's board in 1997 when most doubted the company's future. He has been a pillar of financial and business expertise and insight on our board for over a dozen years. It's been a privilege to know and work with Jerry, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Berkshire Hathaway, slipping behind Apple's market cap last week, leapfrogged back ahead of Steve Jobs & Company by the close of trading Wednesday, with a market cap back over $204 billion. Berkshire Hathaway began trading on Thursday at $82.50.

Wal-Mart has added more than $2 to its share price, opening at $55.92 on Thursday.

In a new financing twist for Wal-Mart, the retail giant told BusinesWeek on Thursday morning in Asia that it may issue yuan-denominated debt in Hong Kong. China is using Hong Kong as a testing ground for yuan products and Wal-Mart may pursue the local Hong Kong debt as a way to underscore its commitment to the region.

The daily trading travails of these stocks, representing a diverse set of U.S. and global economic trends, can make the market capitalization race maddening to monitor day-to-day.

Still, within just these three stocks investors can gain insight into retail, technology, and -- in the case of Berkshire Hathaway -- many U.S. consumer cyclical stocks, from housing to furniture and jewelry. Berkshire is also a proxy for the insurance and financial services sector.

Of course, there are still bigger market cap stocks in the U.S., Microsoft ( MSFT) and Exxon-Mobile ( XOM). Yet at market caps of more than $257 billion, in the case of Microsoft, and $314 billion, in the case of Exxon, they don't trade in the tight market-cap band in which Apple, Wal-Mart and Berkshire Hathaway have been trading.

Over the course of a year, therefore, there might be some value in speculating on the market share race as it reflects the outlook for some of the big sectors represented by these big capital markets brand names. The year-to-date action in these stocks has already evinced some divergent trends.

Over the past month, Apple shares have gained more than $20 in value.

Until Monday and the Citi upgrade of Wal-Mart shares to a buy, the retail bellwether stock had been flat over the past month. What's more, Wal-Mart reached its highest year-to-date share price midday Monday after the Citi upgrade.

Berkshire Hathaway shares have been on a steady climb to start the year, from $66 in early January to more than $82 at midday Monday.

Apple shares began 2010 trading above $210, but slipped as low as $192 in late January, before the most recent Apple rally began on Feb. 23.

Not surprisingly, slow and steady Warren Buffett's slow and steadily growing Berkshire Hathaway has been the slow and steady stock gainer among the triumvirate of U.S. bellwether stocks early in the year.

So will slow and steady win the market capitalization race over the full course of 2010, or will Wal-Mart continue to lead the way and the Citi upgrade represent the starting point of a major rally? Or does Apple's recent share rally indicate that it may be poised to again leapfrog both Wal-Mart and Berkshire Hathaway by the time the finish line of 2010 is reached?

TheStreet readers are typically not shy about calling their market shots, so in light of this recent game of market-cap leapfrog, which of the U.S. bellwether stocks do you think will be the Market Cap King of the group? Take the poll below to see what TheStreet says.

Which of these U.S. bellwether stocks will be, by year's end, the Market-Cap King of the group?

Wal-Mart -- it may continue to slash costs, but its market cap will increase the most.
Apple -- its recent market cap gains were just a taste of what's to come.
Berkshire Hathaway -- it will slowly and steadily win the race.

-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.


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