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 Estee Lauder ( EL), up 37%; discount retailer Ross Stores ( ROST), up 36%; aerospace components maker Goodrich ( GR), up 40%; and coffee-shop chain Starbucks ( SBUX), 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 10 top-performing stocks in the S&P 500 this year, ranked by total return through Nov. 22:
9. Chipotle Mexican Grill ( CMG) 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.
7. VF Corp. ( VFC) 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.
5. MasterCard ( MA), 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.
3. Biogen Idec ( BIIB) 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.
1. Cabot Oil & Gas ( COG), 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.