NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Signs of an improving U.S. economy have allowed consumers to feel more comfortable pulling out their wallet for nonessentials, pushing consumer discretionary shares to some of the highest growth rates in the S&P 500 in the fourth quarter.
The S&P 500 Consumer Discretionary Index -- made up of companies that tend to be the most sensitive to economic cycles -- has soared 6.4% this year, as companies such as Time Warner (TWC - Get Report), McDonald's (MCD - Get Report) and Coach (COH - Get Report) fueled some of the highest earnings growth in the S&P 500.
The 11 consumer discretionary companies to report fourth-quarter results so far grew at an average rate of 14.4%. This growth, on an earnings per share basis, has far outpaced the S&P 500 as a whole, which has seen average earnings growth slow to its slowest pace in more than two year. The benchmark index grew at a 3.6% rate in the fourth quarter, according to the average of 157 companies reporting so far.As 2012 unfolds, many of the stocks most sensitive to economic cycles are already beginning to take off, shrugging off the more negative headlines out of Europe as they prove that fundamentally they are strong and their sales have survived the economic slowdown. Here are five economically-sensitive stocks from the S&P 500 Consumer Discretionary Index that have shown some of the strongest fundamental growth so far in 2012.