By Michael Johnston, founder of ETF Database.

NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- After watching their portfolios take devastating blows in 2008, many investors hoped that a new year would bring a reversal of fortune and a recovery of lost assets. After the first two months of the year tested resolve, things finally took a turn for the better in March, and a long climb upward began.

Most equity exchange-traded funds experienced solid gains in 2009, adding more than 20% on the year. But as always, some fared better than others, with several funds outpacing broad-based benchmarks by a considerable margin. And then there are the handful of ETFs highlighted on the following pages that delivered enormous gains.

These funds have each gained at least 85% this year, putting them in the top 2% of all equity ETFs in our ETF Screener. It should be noted that only funds operating for all of 2009 have been included in this list (although we did bend this rule a bit for one fund with particularly stellar results). For more reports on the year's best, sign up for our

free ETF newsletter

, or take a look at the

complete rundown of 2009 winners

in every asset class.

10. SPDR S&P Emerging Markets Small Cap

(EWX) - Get Report

Most investors choose to gain exposure to emerging markets through funds that invest primarily in mega-cap companies (such as

Vanguard Emerging Market

(VWO) - Get Report

and

iShares MSCI Emerging Markets

(EEM) - Get Report

. But EWX, which is based on an index that has a median market capitalization of less $300 million, has outperformed these more popular ETFs by a wide margin in 2009, gaining 83% (EEM is up about 62% year to date).

EWZ maintains a much smaller allocation to BRIC economies than most emerging markets funds, allocating about as much to these four countries as it does to Taiwan (read about why many investors consider Taiwan to be a developed market

here

).

9. iShares MSCI Turkey Investable Market Index

(TUR) - Get Report

When looking for international equity exposure, most investors likely don't turn to Turkey, the Eurasian nation with one of the world's youngest populations and a strategic location between the developed economies of Western Europe and the less stable economies of the Middle East. TUR has gained almost 90% so far in 2009, thanks in large part to a booming financial sector that accounts for about half of the fund's assets.

8. Claymore/AlphaShares China Small Cap Index

(HAO) - Get Report

With much of the developed economies contracting through the first half of 2009, China is expected to account for a significant portion of global GDP growth and has cemented its status as the leader of the worldwide recovery efforts. The Chinese economy is firing on all cylinders -- energy, technology, industrials and consumer products are booming -- and investors in China ETFs have watched their assets surge this year. The small-cap focused HAO has led the way, posting gains of 91%. The much larger

iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index Fund

(FXI) - Get Report

has gained about 43% on the year -- an impressive tally, but less than half the return of HAO.

7. SPDR S&P Emerging Latin America

(GML)

Beyond Brazil (we're getting to that ETF), the Latin American economies of Mexico, Chile and Peru have also delivered big returns in 2009. GML has exposure to all of these countries, and is up about 93% year to date. Latin American economies suffered in 2008 as demand for many commodities dried up in connection with a pronounced downturn in the global manufacturing sector. But factories are now coming back on line, and demand for raw materials has surged, particularly in the emerging markets of China and India.

GML isn't the only Latin American fund to post big gains so far this year: The

iShares Latin America 40 Index

(ILF) - Get Report

is up 83% on the year while the

Global X/InterBolsa FTSE Colombia 20 ETF

(GXG) - Get Report

has gained 96% since its launch in February.

6. iPath MSCI India ETN

(INP)

Not to be outdone by fellow BRIC economies, India turned in an impressive 2009 that saw INP gain 94%. This ETN's big jump came in May, when the election of the probusiness Indian Natural Congress sent equity markets up 25% in a single session. But Indian equity markets surged throughout the rest of the year as well as the economy resumed its impressive expansion following the global downturn.

The

WisdomTree India Earnings Fund

(EPI) - Get Report

and

PowerShares India Portfolio

(PIN) - Get Report

have also surged this year, gaining 86% and 72%, respectively.

5. Market Vectors Steel Index

(SLX) - Get Report

When the recent recession hit, need for industrial and building materials sunk, and steel prices sunk along with other industrial metals. Facing weakening demand, many steel mills slashed operations and began incurring big losses.

But as the economy has rebounded, prices have recovered and mills have seen a big uptick in orders for all types of steel products. SLX has gained about 104% this year, and is up almost 150% from the bear market lows in March.

4. iShares MSCI Brazil Index

(EWZ) - Get Report

The highlight of 2009 for many Brazilians was likely the naming of Rio de Janeiro as the host of the 2016 Olympic Games, but the year was full of memorable highs for investors in Brazilian equities. "The impact of the global economic slowdown on Brazil's economy was shorter and less severe than in many other parts of the world," writes Alastair Stewart, noting that consumer demand is now driving the economy forward.

EWZ has added about 111% so far in 2009, making it one of the top performing emerging market funds. Another Brazil ETF, the

Market Vectors Brazil Small-Cap ETF

(BRF) - Get Report

also performed well, gaining almost 90% since its inception in May.

3. Market Vectors Coal

(KOL) - Get Report

Because coal is used heavily in power generation and steel production, need for this resource plummeted in 2008 as manufacturing activity and raw material demand sunk. But as shifts came back online and orders from emerging markets surged, coal prices recovered and the stocks of companies engaged in the mining and production of the energy source soared. KOL has gained more than 130% in 2009, handsomely rewarding investors who were fortunate enough to get in at the true market bottom.

Also delivering impressive results in 2009 was the

PowerShares Global Coal Portfolio

(PKOL)

, which is up a whopping 122% for the year.

2. Market Vectors Russia ETF

(RSX) - Get Report

Given Russia's dependence on the energy sector, an investment in the country's equities can be extremely risky. But this emerging economy surged in 2009 as a recovery in prices boosted government revenues. Significant obstacles remain on the road to recovery, but Russia is expected to show further expansion in the fourth quarter and deliver modest growth in 2010.

Russia's stellar performance means that all four BRIC economies found a place among the best performers of 2009, highlighting the importance of an allocation to this bloc of emerging markets. In addition to country-specific exposure, there are several ETFs offering diversified exposure to these four countries (see a list

here

).

1. Market Vectors Indonesia Index ETF

(IDX) - Get Report

The year's best performer has been the Market Vectors Indonesia Index ETF, which has gained almost 160% since its launch in mid-January (technically, IDX hasn't been trading for all of 2009). One of the lesser-known emerging markets, Indonesia is now home to one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Indonesia is a commodity-rich nation, home to 10 highly prized commodities including coffee, palm oil, rubber and rice.

IDX is diversified across all sectors of the economy, including exposure to financials, materials and energy companies.

Themes Emerging

Looking through the funds above, a few trends begin to emerge. Many of the industries that were hit the hardest on the way down (e.g., coal, steel, semiconductors) are now leading the way higher. The losers of 2008 have become the winners of 2009. It's also interesting to note that four of the top five performers are Van Eck ETFs.

It's also interesting to note that most of the year's biggest gainers have limited exposure to U.S. markets, with several emerging economies making the list. U.S. markets bounced back in 2009 after a horrendous performance in 2008, but it has become clear that the emerging economies will take the lead in the current recovery effort, and developed world powers will follow behind. With unemployment above 10% and the challenge of winding down a massive stimulus package still ahead, slow but positive economic growth would be a great success for the U.S. economy. But the U.S. is hardly alone, and is actually in far better shape than many developed European and Asian economies.

Eight of the year's 10 best performers are emerging markets, highlighting a shift in the strategies of many investors away from domestic equities and toward more diversified international exposure. (View our

Emerging Markets ETF Center

for more reading about opportunities.)

Michael Johnston is the senior analyst and founder of ETF Database, a Web-based investment resource providing actionable ETF investment ideas and an

ETF Screener

for investors analyzing potential ETF investments. Johnston oversees ETF Database's free

ETF Newsletter

, one of the most popular sources for news and commentary focusing exclusively on the exchange-traded fund industry. Johnston also maintains and develops content for

ETFdb Pro

, a line of analyst reports and model portfolios designed to help investors utilize ETFs to meet their investment goals.

Johnston has completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program, and obtained his bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Notre Dame. Prior to founding ETF Database, Michael worked in a private client service group performing valuations of companies operating in a wide range of industries.