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
, up 37%; discount retailer
, up 36%; aerospace components maker
( GR), up 40%; and coffee-shop chain
, 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
this year, ranked by total return through Nov. 22:
has seen its shares rise 42% this year to $78, resulting in a market value of $8 billion. The company stores, transports and distributes natural gas and natural-gas liquids across the country. It recently reported that its third-quarter profit rose 9% year-over-year.
Analysts give its shares two "strong buy" ratings and four "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
has gained 45% this year to $303 and recently traded as high as $348, as big investors continue to support the prospects for its casual dining concept. Big institutional investors own at least 60% of its shares. In the third quarter, the company reported a 25% jump in profit.
Analysts give its shares seven "strong buy" ratings and 14 "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
has gained 49% this year to $65, thanks to its land holdings and exploration skills in the booming oil and natural gas industry in the U.S. It is an $11 billion company based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Analysts are all over the map on this one, giving it 10 "strong buy" ratings, two "moderate buys," 19 "holds," one "moderate sell" and two "strong sells," according to TheStreet Ratings.
shares are up 49% this year to $128, making it a $14 billion company. It is a global manufacturer 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.
Analysts give its shares 10 "strong buy" ratings, one "moderate buy" and six "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
, a provider of health insurance and related services to employers and beneficiaries of government health-care programs, is up 54% this year to $82, resulting in a $13 billion market cap.
Its management of government insurance programs is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades, which has attracted new investors. For the five years through 2010, Humana's health-plan enrollment grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.7%, revenue grew at an 18.4% CAGR and operating earnings per share at a 28.6% CAGR, according to an S&P analyst's report.
Analysts give its shares 15 "strong buy" ratings and 10 "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
, up 58% this year to $349, has a market value of $44 billion. It is benefitting from the rapid growth of its debit card business, as financial industry clients are increasingly turning to the company to process card transactions.
Analysts give its shares 19 "strong buy" ratings, four "moderate buys" and six "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
makes the da Vinci robotic surgical systems, EndoWrist instruments and surgical accessories. It has seen its shares rise 62% this year to a whopping $418, giving it a market value of $16 billion.
Analysts give its shares five "strong buy" ratings and eight "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
has risen 70% this year to $110, and recently topped $120. The $27 billion market value firm is a major drug research and manufacturing firm. Its portfolio includes two market-leading drugs and the potential for a third. Biogen's core franchise has been in autoimmune disorder drugs, principally Avonex, which was approved by the FDA in 1996 to treat multiple sclerosis (MS).
Recent approval of a five-year marketing plan for the MS drug Tysabri in Europe and a positive study for Avonex have impressed Biogen's investors.
Analysts give its shares 11 "strong buy" ratings, two "moderate buys" and seven "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
El Paso Corp.
( EP), an interstate gas pipeline operator and oil and gas producer, has seen its shares gain 81% this year to $25. It recently completed a big merger that gives it a dominant industry position, a move that has attracted lots of new investors.
Analysts give its shares four "strong buy" ratings, one "moderate buy," and four "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
Cabot Oil & Gas
, an independent oil and gas producer, has gained 112% this year to $77. It was recently helped by analysts' increased production projections for 2012, while Brean Murray Carret & Co. analysts said in a recent note to clients that their price target of $98 appears to be conservative, based partly on the $8 billion market-cap company's lower projected well costs in 2012.
Analysts give its shares nine "strong buy" ratings, two "moderate buy" and six "holds," according to TheStreet Ratings.
>>To see these stocks in action, visit the
portfolio on Stockpickr.
Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.