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Stocks That Popped in 2012

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2012 was a year complete with mixed economic data, "QE infinity" actions from the Federal Reserve, ever-present euro zone worries, a "Wall Street is rigged" sentimentality and, of course, the continuing "fiscal cliff" soap opera. But for all the uncertainty that reigned amid the signs of a continuing -- if maddeningly sluggish -- economic recovery, the market overall saw some pretty solid returns. So far for 2012, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up around 5%, the S&P 500 11% and the Nasdaq 15%. There has been some late-year loss due to "cliff" fears, and this may accelerate as we near 2013 with no budget deal yet sealed. But this seems like a good time to take a look at some of the stocks that have performed particularly well this past year.

Gap Clothing Display: Credit Siemond Chan

For this exercise, Yahoo! Finance chose to go with the S&P 1,500 index, which includes the S&P 500 index of large cap stocks along with the MidCap 400 and SmallCap 600. Naturally, the smaller the market cap of a company is, the easier it is for its stock to record triple-digit gains. And the number one stock on our list is indeed that of a small-cap company, Headwaters Inc. (HW), a building-products outfit that started the year at just $2.18 a share and is now trading at $8.43. That makes for a rather eye-popping 273% to the upside, year-to-date.  So if you, as an investor, had bought 1,000 shares in January, you would have paid just $2,180 and now you'd be sitting on $8,430 -- a profit of $6,250. Owning even thousands of shares of such a small stock wouldn't exactly see you through retirement, as owning a similar amount of  the infinitely more expensive Apple (AAPL) surely would. (Note: Apple is up 26% year to date). But a profit of close to 300% is still a tidy one indeed.

[Related link: The Market in 2012 Stocks Up, Economy Sideways]

Headwaters isn't the only name on the S&P 1,500 top 10 that is related to the building and housing industry, which gave us some of the more positive data to point to this year. Investors in 2012 certainly seemed ready to bet that this data was signaling a real recovery and the housing bottom had at long last arrived -- even though there is inarguably a long, long way to go before we are even near where we were at the height of the boom.  Lumber Liquidators (LL), which manufactures hardwood floors, is up an impressive 190%, while home-constructor PulteGroup Inc. (PHM) is up 187% and homebuilder M/I Homes (MHO) is up 168%. Of all of these, you'd be able to cash in the most with 1,000 shares of Lumber Liquidators, which is trading at $51 a share with a market cap of $1.42 billion.

Now, whether or not these stocks truly have legs -- recovery or no -- is a subject for debate; as Yahoo! Finance's own Michael Santoli told his Twitter audience recently, "Homebuilders enjoy no brand loyalty, have hardly [any control of] their costs. Housing sector upturn is real, [this] doesn't make builders good companies." Still, there's no denying that homebuilding and supply stocks were profitable for investors in 2012, and for some, that is good enough.

Healthcare is another sector that saw some upside this year; two healthcare companies grace our top 10 list, with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN) up 212% and staffing service AMN Healthcare (AHS) up 157%.  Regeneron, with a $16.3 billion market cap, trades for the most by far of any other top 10 S&P 1,500 stocks, with shares at $173.04. You could have snagged 100 shares of REGN for $5,643 back in January and now you'd be sitting on $17,304; that's a pretty nice take of $11,661 for zero effort throughout the year.

[Related link: The Top-Searched Tickers of 2012]

Regarding the run-up in healthcare stocks in 2012, some experts have cited the Obamacare effect -- or even the anti-Obamacare effect. For instance, biotechs such as Regeneron are NOT affected by the Affordable Care Act; therefore, investors in such companies can focus more on the science of drug development -- and the profits they can bring -- and less on the political implications of healthcare insurance. The industry also saw a healthy surge in job growth this year, adding an average of 26,000 jobs per month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as the new rules are rolled out, this sector as a whole, including managed-care and hospital stocks, could see some real volatility.

Sprint (S) is the lone telecommunications company on this list -- trading now at just $5.50 a share after starting the year at a mere $2.31, the stock is much cheaper than any of its competitors, including Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T). At record lows, the stock was seen by some experts in 2012 as a good discount buy, despite its many challenges -- including billions of dollars in losses over the past seven years -- and the fact that it is a very distant third to Verizon and AT&T as far as customer base goes. Ahead for the company: the road to approval -- or not -- of its $2.1 billion takeover bid for crucial partner Clearwire Corp. (CLWR).

With a strong recent earnings performance and outlook, along with rising guest volume and higher rental revenues, timeshare company Marriott Vacations Worldwide (VAC) has been another big performer in 2012, with shares up 135% year-to-date.

And 3D Systems Corp. (DDD) has capitalized on the surging popularity -- and heightened buzz -- of 3D printing to come in at number two on our list, with a boost of 260% year-to-date.

And the natural gas boom of 2012 likely helped boost Exterran Holdings (EXH), a provider of services and equipment for oil and natural-gas production, 135%.

Below please see our full chart of the top 10 percentage gainers on the S&P 1,500, courtesy of FactSet (as of market close December 24). Do you own any of these -- or do you just wish you did?

Ticker Name Price YTD  Chg
HW Headwaters Inc. $8.3 273%
DDD 3D Systems Corp. $51.9 260%
REGN Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. $173.04 212%
LL Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. $51.31 190%
PHM PulteGroup Inc. $18.15 187%
MHO M/I Homes Inc. $25.74 168%
AHS AMN Healthcare Services Inc. $11.42 157%
EXH Exterran Holdings Inc. $21.46 135%
S Sprint Nextel Corp. $5.5 135%
VAC Marriott Vacations Worldwide Corp. $40.33 135%