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Fab 5: The Best Stocks Of 2011

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With just one week of trading left in what looks to be a frustrating and lackluster year for stocks, it would be easy to dismiss 2011 as a washout and set your sights on new opportunities for the new year. Given the fact that, at its best, the S&P 500 was up 9% in May, only to be down 14% by early October, it is no small accomplishment that we are wrapping up the year basically where we began it 12 months ago.

That said, 2011 wasn't all bad. In fact, a trio from the healthcare sector dominates the list of the year's top performers (that were not acquired*).

5. Perrigo (PRGO) +62%
4. Biogen Idec (BIIB) +66%
3. Mastercard (MA) 67%
2. Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) +71%
1. Cabot Oil & Gas (COG) +104%

In 5th place with a 62% gain for the year, is Michigan-based generic drug-maker Perrigo. The stock is now worth about $9.5 billion dollars and saw an already great year turn even brighter earlier this month when it was added to both the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100 indices making it a must-own company for virtually all large cap index funds.

Not far ahead on the leader board, in 4th place, you will find Biogen Idec, which is up 66% this year. The Boston-based bio-pharmaceutical company is now worth over $27 billion and is best known for its multiple sclerosis and cancer drugs. After hitting an all-time high of $120 in October, Biogen is currently trading down at about $111 a share but is still supported with ''buy" ratings by 63% of the analysts who follow the company. It has an average price target of $124.

The third of the healthcare laureates for 2011 makes the robotic systems that are increasingly used in surgeries and is aptly named, Intuitive Surgical. The stock is up 71% for the year and is on track to do more than $1.7 billion dollars in sales, which will mark more than a four-fold increase in just 5 years. ISRG is also trading at an all-time high of $450 a share but is rated "Hold" by three-quarters of the analysts who follow it. At $17.5 billion in market value, Intuitive is now about the same size as more familiar names such as Heinz (HNZ) and Kellogg (K).

(For the record, as I write this, a 4th healthcare name is vying for a top-five finish. Health insurance and wellness service provider Humana (HUM) is also up more than 60%)

But the top five performers aren't all in the world of healthcare. Riding high atop its better known peers in the technology sector (like IBM and Apple) is credit card data processor Mastercard. At $47 billion in value, it is the largest of the top-5, and carries a whopping share price of $375. Mastercard and rival Visa (V) both enjoyed a big pop back in June after the Federal Reserve was much more lenient than expected when lowering the cap on debit-card swipe fees. The stock hit an all-time high of $384 on December 2nd and is "buy" rated by 80% of the analysts who follow it.

And lastly, the gold medal goes to Cabot Oil & Gas, whose 104% jaunt lands it atop the S&P 500 for the year. Interestingly, this red hot stock also has the dubious distinction of being one of the index's biggest losers this month after shedding 13% in the past 3 weeks. Just prior to this year end slump, the Houston-based energy company rallied to an all-time high of $90 in November and December. Half the analysts who cover Cabot say buy it while the other half feel the stock is fairly valued at current levels.

Did you get in on any of these winners this year? Let us know on Facebook or tweet me @MattNesto.

*After being acquired in October by Kinder Morgan for $38 billion, El Paso (EP) is up 87% this year. That deal is expected to close in the next few months assuming regulators okay it.

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