Skittish Market’s Winners and Losers Point the Way

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Wall Street finished just about where it began at the beginning of this year.

A highly volatile stock market may have given you whiplash in 2011. But as the year draws to a close, the final numbers don’t look so dramatic: the S&P 500 is poised to end the year almost exactly where it began, and about as many Fortune 500 companies’ shares rose as fell.

It’s almost as if the Euro crisis, debt-ceiling fiasco, and struggling economy didn’t matter. Yet a closer look at winners and losers reveals the market’s inner skittishness. Healthcare companies and utilities shined, up 11% and 14.5% respectively, as safe havens in a slow economy, S&P reports. Many are also dividend payers, which were in demand. On the losing end were financial and basic materials stocks, down 17% and 10.5% respectively, as credit issues and the weak economy dragged on.

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Meanwhile, some individual stocks roared higher while others whimpered to disastrous losses. The market’s split personality in 2011 points one more time to the importance of staying diversified. Following are the best and worst performing S&P 500 stocks through Dec. 23:

The winners:

  • Cabot Oil & Gas This energy producer more than doubled (up 106%) amid strong global demand for natural gas.
  • El Paso Corp. The natural gas company rose 90% amid strong demand for natural gas and an agreement to be taken over by larger competitor Kinder Morgan.
  • Intuitive Surgical This surgical systems manufacturer rose 78% as investors focused on its domination of a niche area of the robotic surgery equipment market.
  • MasterCard The financial services giant rose 69% as the shift to a cashless society insulated it from the economic downturn and financial reform proved less onerous than expected on credit card companies.
  • Biogen This pharmaceuticals company rose 65% as investors focused on its prospects for a new muscular dystrophy treatment.

The losers:

  • First Solar This manufacturer of solar panels fell 73% as earnings flagged and it suffered the surprise resignation of key personnel.
  • Alpha Natural Resources This coal manufacturer fell 65% amid costly environmental mistakes.
  • Netflix The online and DVD entertainment firm dropped 59% as management bungled a price hike during the recession.
  • Bank of America The banking giant plunged 58% from already low levels as the recession and problems with the mortgage business plagued many financial concerns.
  • American International Group This insurance giant tumbled 58% as investors feared a fire sale of shares owned by the U.S. government since the AIG bailout at the height of the financial crisis.

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