5 Best-Performing S&P 500 Stocks of 2011

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The S&P 500 Index has fallen 3.1% from its 52-week high, recorded a month ago, as investors moved out of riskier assets, including commodities.

That leaves the benchmark with a 2011 gain of 5.5%, which is on pace to trail the performance of the previous two calendar years.

Amid the correction, leadership has shifted to defensive sectors, like health care, consumer staples and utility stocks, which were previously bull-market laggards. In the past four weeks, S&P telecommunications stocks delivered a median return of 6.4% and health-care shares gained 4.2%.

The list of concerns facing investors is piling up. Europe's debt woes, driven by Greece, threaten to stall economic growth in a region that's as large as the U.S. Japan just sank into a recession because of an environmental catastrophe, and China, the engine of global growth, is slowing amid higher interest rates.

All that has put the focus on U.S. stocks, which are being propelled by fat profit margins, accommodating monetary policy and an upcoming election year in which the state of the economy will take center stage, putting pressure on politicians to support business.

Hence, the best-performing large-caps of 2011 are growth stories. Below is closer look at these top stocks.

5. Electronic Arts ( ERTS) is a newcomer to the top-performing stocks list. The stock has advanced 44% in 2011, but, more impressively, has rocketed 17% in May, besting peer investments. The company, whose stock was previously recommended as a value pick, more than tripled its adjusted fiscal fourth-quarter earnings to 25 cents a share, beating analysts' consensus by 13%. EA boosted its top line 11% to $995 million, exceeding consensus.

The company was the No. 1 high-definition game publisher of the quarter and the No. 1 PC publisher, but its growth in digital revenue, which encompasses mobile games, digital downloads and social games that can be played on networks like that of Facebook, propelled the company. Digital revenue jumped past management's full-year guidance of $750 million to $833 million. It advanced 47% during the most recent quarter, helping net income.

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4. Netflix ( NFLX) has a mail DVD-rental, and streaming movie and television businesses. It ranks as the fourth-best S&P 500 stock in 2011, with a 50% gain, the second best over a one-year span and the best over a three-year span, as well. This performance has elicited criticism from those who believe that Netflix is overvalued and the stock is doomed to fall. But, Netflix is adding subscribers at a break-neck pace, even as competitive threats emerge.

Its adjusted first-quarter earnings rose 88% to $1.11, beating consensus by 3.7%, as sales gained 46% to $706 million, exceeding consensus by 1.8%. Netflix shares dropped 9% in reaction to the report, but have since rallied to a fresh 52-week high. This week, Mark Zuckerberg disclosed at a conference that Facebook, previously named as a major competitive threat, is in talks with Netflix to integrate its streaming service into the new media network, a potential game changer.

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3. Dean Foods ( DF), among the worst-performing and cheapest S&P 500 stocks of 2010, has advanced 30% in the past 12 months and 53% in 2011, ranking as the third-best S&P 500 stock. Dean is a processor and distributor of dairy and soy milk and suffered a difficult 2010 as margins compressed amid higher input costs. Dean has responded by laying off workers, cutting expenses and boosting prices. So far, these measures are paying off for Dean Foods.

Dean's adjusted first-quarter earnings plummeted 42% to 14 cents, but beat analysts' consensus estimate by 150%, sending shares up 11% in reaction. Similarly, sales grew 3% to just under $3.1 billion, narrowly missing consensus. The operating margin remained shallow, dropping from 4.1% to 3.4%. Dean is still a poorly-rated stock, with "buy" ratings from just 13% of analysts. But, Goldman Sachs expects the shares to advance 41% to $19 in 12 months.

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2. El Paso ( EP) is another oil and gas company, but its stock has rocketed (up 53%) not only due to improved operating performance, but a plan to split up the company into two separate publicly traded companies: El Paso, a domestic exploration and production company, and El Paso Pipeline Partners ( EPB), a master limited partnership that will retain the natural gas pipeline assets. MLPs pay large dividends and receive special tax treatment.

While this move is sensible, allowing the company's main business to separate and focus while cutting down on unnecessary bureaucracy and costs, strong operating performance has also propelled shares in recent weeks. El Paso's adjusted first-quarter earnings, at 30 cents a share, marked a decline from the year-earlier tally, but beat consensus by 7.1%. El Paso is a bit pricey, trading at 15-times forward earnings, but just 7.6-times cash flow.

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1. Cabot Oil & Gas ( COG) produces and stores natural gas for resale. Its realized natural-gas price fell 28% in 2010, but hedging helped offset that drop. Cabot is involved in the Marcellus shale project. As a result, Morgan Stanley expects Cabot to boost total production 40% during 2011. Recent Middle East turbulence should benefit the longer-term demand for natural gas, which, unlike oil, is overflowing in the U.S. Cabot's stock has risen 54% so far in 2011.

Cabot's adjusted first-quarter earnings decreased 52% to 20 cents, beating analysts' consensus by 71%, as sales declined 3.1% to $209 million, beating by 8.1%. Cabot has advanced 6.2% in four weeks, despite receiving middling reviews from researchers. They popped 7% yesterday as management stated that production rose from 310 to 400 million cubic feet per day of natural gas from its Marcellus property, helped by a compressor station upgrade.

-- Written by Jake Lynch in Boston.

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