NEW YORK - Economic cycles are Darwinian, picking off weak companies and leaving survivors stronger.

It's been a year of brutal losses. More than 1.2 million jobs have vanished.

Corporate survivors, however, should benefit as competitors disappear. Retailer Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. won't have to contend with Linens 'N Things, which is in liquidation. Best Buy Co. may not be fighting price wars with Circuit City Stores Inc., which is reorganizing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. FedEx Corp. won't scrap for market share against DHL Express, a German-owned company that is leaving the U.S.

Staying in business won't be easy. But the companies that will be best positioned when the economy eventually improves may include the following:

Kohl's Corp. and Forever 21 are rare among retailers: They're opening stores.

The one clear retail winner of the recession has been Wal-Mart, which offers consumers bargains on everything from pet food to drugs.

Another winner is McDonald's Corp. The fast-food company's sales rose nearly 8 percent in November.

Wells Fargo & Co. could leave the recession as the nation's dominant bank, with its planned deal to buy Wachovia Corp.

Delta Air Lines Inc. became the largest airline in the world when it merged with Northwest in October. The company says it will make a profit next year.

AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are the top wireless carriers at a time when tough creditors favor the largest players with the most cash. *