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5 Big Surprise Stock Winners of 2011

MILLBURN, N.J. (Stockpickr) -- 2011 is drawing to a close. While both professionals and do-it-yourself investors try to prognosticate the year ahead in advance, we're always dealt our fair share of surprises -- both good and bad.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the five biggest positive stock surprises and five biggest negative stock surprises of 2011, starting with the positive.

Also check out "5 Big Surprise Loser Stocks of 2011."

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Pharmasset: +467%

Overall, 2011 was not a good year for the biotech industry. The Amex Biotech Index has declined close to 20% so far in 2011. The Nasdaq Biotech Index and its corresponding ETF, iShares Nasdaq Biotech Index ETF (IBB), rose about 10% in the same period.

The difference in relative performance for those two indices was Pharmasset (VRUS), which represents approximately 11% of the Nasdaq Biotech Index but is not at all in the Amex Biotech Index. So it is fair to say that biotech ex-Pharmasset performed poorly in 2011.

According to the company's Web site, Pharmasset is "a clinical-stage pharmaceutical company committed to discovering, developing and commercializing novel drugs to treat viral infections. Our primary focus is on the development of oral therapeutics for the treatment of hepatitis C virus ('HCV'). We currently have three product candidates and a series of preclinical candidates nearing preparation for clinical development."

The key product for the company is its treatment for hepatitis C. On Nov. 21, Gilead (GILD) agreed to buy Pharmasset for $137 per share. At the time, the stock was selling for $72.67. Prior to that deal being announced, Pharmasset shares had risen 234% on the year. (It shows up on a list of Five Drug Stock Winners of 2011.)

Pharmasset is definitely the woulda-coulda-shoulda stock of the year.

Ladenburg Thalman: +118%

Ladenburg Thalman (LTS) is an old boutique investment bank / brokerage firm based out of Miami. Given its size, relative obscurity and low stock price, Ladenburg Thalman is overlooked in the investment world.

Worth noticing, however, is that after 12 consecutive losing quarters, Ladenburg Thalman posted breakeven results for the first and second quarter of this year. This was achieved on the back of record revenue generation for this firm. The stock rose 18% in the first half of 2011.

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