To add Ross Stores fourth-quarter guidance.
) -- The 2011 top performers on the
S&P 500 Index
of the largest U.S. stocks is an eclectic group, but two oil and gas companies are far and away the biggest winners, with gains of at least 81%.
from investors, since they've put up returns of at least 46% this year while swimming against a powerful current. Investors have fled stocks to move into bonds and even money market accounts, and turned their backs on anything that carriers risk.
As evidence of that, 288 of the S&P 500 member companies have handed investors losses this year.
International crises, especially the eurozone's debt debacle, have scared off U.S. investors, contributing to the market's volatility as many jumped in and out of the market in reaction to the latest, often dramatic, headlines.
As a result, the S&P 500 has been on a roller coaster this year, bottoming at 1,100 on Oct. 3, then rebounding 14% by the first week of December, including a surge of 7.4% between Nov. 25 and Dec. 2, the biggest weekly advance since 2009. But it's now down 1.4% on the year with two weeks to go.
In inverse order of return, here are the S&P 500's
: up 46%
: The company stores, transports, and distributes natural gas and natural-gas liquids across the country.
: Storing and transporting natural gas is one of the hottest segments of the nation's booming oil and gas industry, since gas is cheaper than oil and has a wide range of uses. The company recently reported that its third-quarter profit rose 9% year-over-year. S&P has it rated "buy"
: up 47%
: Ross Stores is the nation's second-largest off-price retailer of brand-name apparel and home accessories, and operates about 990 Ross Dress for Less stores and roughly 70 dd's Discounts stores.
: November same-store sales were up a healthy 5% over last year. S&P has a $90 price target on it, a 91% premium, but has a "hold" on its shares as it says "we view the shares as fully valued at recent levels."
Ross Stores fourth-quarter guidance calls for a same-store sales increase of 2% to 3% and earnings of between $1.53 to $1.59 per share. Also, it had a two-for-one stock split on Dec. 15.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
: up 51%
: The company is the largest player in the $5 billion fast-casual Mexican restaurant category, with 1,150 restaurants.
: S&P sees revenue rising 24% this year and 20% in 2012, but has the shares rated "hold." Big institutional investors own at least 60% of its stock. In the third quarter, the company reported a 25% jump in profit.
Its shares have a three-year annualized return of 43%. The question is: When does it max out the number of restaurants and its shares stop flying? The company has said it could triple the number of locations, so there's still growth to be had.
: up 51%
: The company is a global maker of clothing and accessories as a provider to many major brands, ranging from Vans shoes, The North Face outerwear and Lee jeans, to women's lingerie.
: S&P rates it "buy," saying "we expect strong brand dynamics to enable VF Corp. to gain market share in an uncertain environment." It said 70% of its 2010 revenue came from the U.S., so there are exceptional growth opportunities internationally. Its shares have a three-year average annual return of 39%.
: up 56%
: The company is a provider of health insurance.
: S&P rates it "buy" and estimates operating earnings of $8.40 per share in 2011, up from $7.10 in 2010, and look for $7.80 per share in 2012. It has a three-year average annual return of 39%.
S&P has a $95 price target on its shares, a 9% premium, and says it has the scale, diversity and flexibility to adjust to the health-care reform law. This would make an excellent health-care play in any portfolio.
: up 61%
: MasterCard is one of two top firms in the rapidly growing debit card business, as its financial industry clients are increasingly turning to the company to process their card transactions.
: Its shares have a five-year average annual return of 30%, and there's no reason it won't be able to continue that. S&P projects a 25% increase in revenue this year and 13% in 2012. S&P has a $400 price target on it, a 6% premium.
Keefe, Bruyette & Woods (KBW) raised its price target on payment processors, including MasterCard, last week as it foresees lower total delinquencies and improvements in November charge-off rates. Its new price target is $468, up from $445. MasterCard shares are now at $367.
: The company is a major drug research and manufacturing firm. Its portfolio includes two market-leading drugs and the potential for a third. Its core franchise has been in autoimmune disorder drugs.
: S&P projects revenue growth of 6% in 2011 to $5 billion, and 3.5% in 2012 to $5.18 billion, but has a "hold" rating on its shares based on its current value. This probably represents a good long-term play in the pharmaceuticals market.
: up 64%
: The company makes the da Vinci robotic surgical systems, EndoWrist instruments and surgical accessories.
: S&P looks for sales to rise more than 23% in 2011 and in the mid-teens in 2012. It forecast earnings of $11.90 per share in 2011, rising to $14.00 in 2012, but has its shares rated "hold" on a valuation basis. Its shares have a 15-year average annual return of 26%. Try to find a stock that has done better over that period.
El Paso Corp.
: up 81%
: The company is a major U.S. interstate gas pipeline operator and oil and gas producer.
: On Oct. 16, El Paso announced that it will merge with
in a $38 billion deal. Their plans call for selling EP's exploration and production assets and combing their pipeline operations to create the nation's largest midstream energy transportation company, at a time when demand for natural gas is growing.
Cabot Oil & Gas
: up 94%
: The company is an independent oil and gas producer, with a focus on the nation's oil shale deposits.
: The company is one of the earliest and biggest players in the oil shale boom. Its 2012 guidance is for production volume growth of 45% to 55%, which some analysts have called conservative. One analyst's 2012 earnings estimate is for a healthy $2.95 per share, up from $2.74 per share this year.
Cabot should continue to be a winner as evidenced by its 15-year average annual return of 18%.
>>To see these stocks in action, visit the
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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.