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10 Best-Performing S&P 500 Stocks Heading Into 2012

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- The two biggest and four of the 10 largest gainers in the benchmark S&P 500 Index this year are in the oil and natural gas industry. Political instability among Middle Eastern oil countries and new drilling sites and technologies here at home are raising the prospects for growth.

The top 10 performers had a 42% or better increase through Nov. 22, which has meant some backsliding and shuffling over the past few months, at least among the leaders. Oil and gas firms have been well-represented among the top performers in what has been a record year for volatility, which tends to sap returns.

The balance of the performance leaders are an eclectic group, with industries ranging from a robotic surgical device maker to a Mexican fast-food chain. Looking further down the list of big stock gainers this year, no discernable patterns emerge in terms of sector performance.

The S&P 500, which tracks the performance of the largest U.S. stocks, is down 3.8% this year, but is hanging on to a gain of 1.2% over the past 12 months as it staggers to a close for 2012.

This year, companies in the S&P 500 have been faced with uncertainties ranging from fast-rising oil and commodities prices in the U.S. earlier in the year, to the continuing saga of the European debt crisis, which have all contributed to investor flight from volatile markets.

That's why a break-even year would sound pretty good to a lot of investors right now.

Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst at Standard & Poor's, said the diversity among the top performers shows the importance of finding companies with good management when it comes to stock-picking.

"Over the past two years, companies have reacted differently to the (changing economic) environment, even companies within the same sub-industry, but now these companies stand out," he said. "They've been able to differentiate themselves because of the ways they reacted," but they've also gotten a push by catching on at the right time in an industry cycle.

Among the top performers include such disparate stocks as women's beauty-products seller Estee Lauder (EL), up 37%; discount retailer Ross Stores (ROST), up 36%; aerospace components maker Goodrich (GR), up 40%; and coffee-shop chain Starbucks (SBUX), up 32%.

The best-performing sector, of the 10 tracked by S&P, is utilities, up 7%. It's always been considered a plodder but is now thought to be attractive because of the high dividend yields found there, which is why it's a refuge for investors burned out by the volatility elsewhere.

The next-best performance is by the consumer-staples sector, up 3.8%, followed by health care, up 2.2%.

All other sectors are losers, with financials leading the decline, at 24.5%.

The following is a snapshot of the 10 top-performing stocks in the S&P 500 this year, ranked by total return through Nov. 22:

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