NEW YORK -- Reebok International, the athletic apparel manufacturer best known for its popular shoes, was the most profitable company in the United States in an annual ranking by Forbes magazine.

Reebok, based in Canton, Mass., led 880 companies in return on equity, the measure of how much a corporation earns on its shareholders' investment, Forbes said in its Jan. 11 issue.

The magazine tallied the firms' return on equity over the last three to five years. Reebok had a more than 200 percent average return over the past three years, with a 52 percent return in the most recent 12 months.

Because the rankings consider a company's aggregate performance over several years, some of the companies with recent profit declines or losses were given high rankings because of their past strength.

For example, second on the list was CenTrust Savings Bank, a Miami-based savings and loan company, which also had a more than 200 percent return over the past three years but showed a decline in profitability over the past 12 months.

No. 3 was Anchor Glass Container, of Tampa, Fla., which had a 166.6 percent return over the last three years and 34.7 percent in the past 12 months.

Fourth-ranked was Coleco Industries Inc. of West Hartford, Conn., which had soaring profits over the past five years thanks to its Cabbage Patch Kids.

Coleco had a nearly 97 percent return on equity in the last five years, but in the most recent 12 months the toy maker has lost money.

Chrysler ranked No. 5, with a 71.3 percent return over three years and 23.8 percent in the past year.

At the opposite end of the scale, the least profitable company among the 880 ranked by Forbes was Houston-based Cameron Iron Works, with a 0.1 percent return over five years and a decline in the last 12 months.

Forbes said the median return over the last 12 months was 13.6 percent, up only slightly from 13 percent in its 1986 survey. The magazine said considering companies' most recent results, overall return on equity would continue declining.

Rounding out the top 10 were: Highland Superstores, of Taylor, Mich., which had a 64.4 percent return over five years and 13.3 percent in the most recent 12 months. Seagate Technology of Scotts Valley, Calif., 61.1 percent over five years and 44.4 percent over 12 months. Columbia Savings & Loan Association, 60.8 percent over five years and 20.4 percent over 12 months. Lockheed Corp., of Calabasas, Calif., with 59.5 percent over five years and 21.1 percent in 12 months. Sun Microsystems, of Mountain View, Calif., with 59.2 percent over four years and 22.2 over 12 months. 25 MOST PROFITABLE COMPANIES

Here are the 25 most profitable companies in the United States, as compiled by Forbes magazine on the basis of return on equity during the last three to five years. 1. Reebok International, athletic apparel manufacturer. 2. CenTrust Savings Bank, savings and loan. 3. Anchor Glass, glass container manufacturer. 4. Coleco Industries, toy manufacturer. 5. Chrysler, car manufacturer. 6. Highland Superstores, retailer. 7. Seagate Technology, computer equipment manufacturer. 8. Columbia Savings & Loan Association, savings and loan. 9. Lockheed, aircraft manufacturer. 10. Sun Microsystems, computer manufacturer. 11. Liz Claiborne, apparel manufacturer. 12. Price Co., wholesale merchandiser. 13. Limited Inc., retailer. 14. Western Savings & Loan, savings and loan. 15. Mayfair Super Markets, retailer. 16. Subaru of America, auto manufacturer. 17. U.S. Healthcare, health maintenance organizations. 18. Commerce Clearing House, publisher. 19. Home Depot, retailer. 20. Student Loan Marketing, loan financing. 21. General Motors EDS, computer systems. 22. American Continental, financial service and real estate holding company. 23. ICH, insurance holding company. 24. Kellogg, food manufacturer. 25. General Cinema, soft drink manufacturer and theatre chain owner.