Last year’s profile of the best-performing stocks in the S&P 500 was a depressing read full of mining concerns, discount stores, and credit-card companies trading up on regulatory favors. This year’s list is a more optimistic, more diverse collection, not least because the market as a whole did much better. Cabot Oil & Gas topped last year’s list at 107 percent growth, which would only be good for fourth place this time around. Visa’s 43.19 percent growth last year wouldn’t have made the top 40 this time around. Corporate America, in other words, had a much stronger run in 2012. These are the companies you wish you’d bought last Christmas:
1. Sprint Nextel
Opening price: $2.34. Dec. 26 price: $5.56.
Growth: 138 percent
The extraordinary performance of the third banana of American wireless telephony was less about anything Sprint did than about Japanese telecom giant SoftBank’s decision to purchase 70 percent of the outstanding shares for $20.1 billion. Conventional wisdom panned the move as ego-driven and doomed to failure, and I have no contrarian Slate-y rebuttal, but as a citizen, it’s good to know that when rich Japanese egomaniacs want to make a foolish investment, they still think of America as the place to do it.
Opening price: $6.37. Dec. 26 price: $13.37.
Growth: 110 percent
This isn’t a household name, but as a major homebuilder, the PulteGroup is a decent bellwether for the American economy. Construction activity closed 2012 at what’s still a very low level by historical standards, but it’s way up from where it was a year ago. After years of stagnation, we’re back to adding houses faster than we add people—meaning folks are finally moving out from their parents’ basement or their sister’s spare room.
3. Whirlpool Corporation
Opening price: $48.51. Dec. 26 price: $99.74.
Growth: 106 percent
At the intersection of the underhyped housing recovery and the overhyped manufacturing recovery lies Whirlpool Corporation, America’s leading manufacturer of the big stuff you put in your house. This is a bigger company than you think, since they make Maytag, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, and Amana appliances along with the ones that actually bear the Whirlpool name. They also make some Ikea-branded appliances, as well as producing for the Sears and Home Depot house brands. Home appliances aren’t sexy, but that’s exactly what makes them a great indicator of core economic well-being. A sexy company can thrive even in a bad economy. To sell washer, dryers, and stand mixers, you need a climate of reasonably broad prosperity.
4. Bank of America
Opening price: $5.80. Dec. 26 price: $11.54.
Growth: 99 percent
The most troubled of America’s troubled big banks had a very solid if belated comeback year. That said, this is more a case of the shares being nearly worthless a year ago than of anything extraordinary happening today. The company is still trading well below a notional book value of $20 per share worth of assets, reflecting ongoing concerns about legal liability and a perception that the company is simply too large and diverse to be managed properly.
5. Expedia Inc.
Opening price: $29.66. Dec. 26 price: $57.93.
Growth: 95 percent
Expedia launched the year by spinning off its TripAdvisor group of travel-related media sites and focusing on its core set of online travel tools. That’s Expedia itself, but also Hotels.com, Hotwire.com, the corporate travel agency Egencia, and a travel website in China called eLong. A good position in the Chinese marketplace is an asset for any company these days, but travel in general is, like appliances, something that fluctuates with the overall ups and downs of the economy. Firms and households have a relatively easy time cutting travel spending when they need to tighten their belts, but an overall better outlook had those belts loosening this year instead.