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The Top-Searched Tickers of 2012

This year’s list of most-searched stock tickers says just as much about some of the biggest stories of the year as it does about the companies themselves. They reflect an array of businesses and an even broader assortment of interests and issues, from the presidential campaign to energy independence to a second wave of dot.com IPOs. You’ll also note that not all of them have made the list due to their stellar performance. Some had anything but.

Apple (AAPL): August marked Tim Cook’s one-year anniversary of taking the reins at Apple.  Before this milestone, not much of note had emerged from the company, but the stock still rose more than 70%, reaching an intraday high of $705.07 on September 21.

But problems started to crop up in September, when the company tried to force its own maps program on those who bought the iPhone 5 -- only to discover it didn’t work. Sales of the iPhone 5, despite breaking records, also initially underwhelmed analysts.

Now Apple faces huge expectations to deliver another innovative product rather than just different versions of existing products. The longer it goes without doing so, the shakier the stock. Other concerns include continued competition from Android, decreasing tablet market share and chatter around margin-requirement hikes.  Investors may also be selling in anticipation of a higher capital gains rate if no "fiscal cliff" deal is reached by the end of the year.  That said, Apple is growing at a more than 20% pace and amassing cash faster than ever before seen in corporate history. Despite this fall swoon, which included its worst single day since 2008, shares of Apple remain up more than 30% year to date. But some analysts say the decline could continue. Are Apple's best days really behind it? Was it a victim of "irrational exuberance" for the past five years, as analyst Paul Schatz recently told Breakout? Stay tuned in 2013.

Facebook (FB): The biggest and most anticipated IPO of the year turned into a bust almost from the start. Shares were set to begin trading at 11 a.m. on May 18. Instead, due to problems with Nasdaq, trading was delayed for 30 minutes. The stock closed flat at $38.32 a share but did set a record for volume traded for an IPO, with more than 550 million shares trading hands.

It’s been a bumpy ride ever since, as investors look for solid signs of the company’s ability to leverage its massive user base of more than 1 billion users and generate revenue. Shares of the social-networking giant are down more than 30% year to date, although a recent bounce has seen the stock jump about that much over the past month amid improved sentiment -- and despite a massive IPO-share lockup expiration -- that has some analysts feeling far peppier about the company's long-term prospects. 

Zynga (ZNGA): Executives have been jumping ship from ailing social game maker Zynga at an alarming pace. More than a half dozen have departed the company over the past year.

Meanwhile, Zynga has struggled to keep folks paying for their services, and fewer people seem to be finding the games. The result has been a string of disappointing quarterly results. A recent announcement about changes in the terms of its deal with Facebook sent the stock plunging yet again, although it recovered amid reports of a real-money gaming deal attempt in Nevada -- a first for the company. Since tapping an intraday high of $15.91 on March 2, shares are down more than 75% year-to-date.

First Solar (FSLR): First Solar’s problems have been the problems of the sector as a whole. There are too many players, there's weak demand and governments around the world have cut back on subsidies for clean energy.

In November, First Solar reported a 44% decline in earnings and a 17% decline in revenue. CEO James Hughes noted that oversupply continues to be a problem in the overall market. Shares of First Solar have tumbled more than 40% year-to-date.

Arena Pharmaceuticals (ARNA): If you’re looking for an eye-popping performance, Arena Pharmaceuticals should suffice. The drug maker has seen its stock rocket more than 550% for the year to date. Much, if not all, of that rise can be traced to one drug.

In late July, the Food and Drug Administration approved the company’s weight loss drug, Belviq. Good news, since the threat of an obesity epidemic shows no signs of slowing. And in November, insurance giant Aetna said it would provide coverage for the drug.

Groupon (GRPN): Social deals company Groupon has suffered much the same fate as Facebook and Zynga this year. Shares of the company, which went public in December of 2011, have fallen approximately 80% year to date, putting the pressure on founder and CEO Andrew Mason.

In early November, Groupon reported another quarter of disappointing earnings, and its stock went as low as $2.60 on November 12. Following that, reports started swirling that Mason would be shown the door. The company's board of directors met at the end of the month, ultimately deciding to stick with Mason for now. Still, Wall Street has grown uneasy about the viability of Groupon's business as fever for daily deals has cooled among consumers and merchants, hurting its growth rate.

Adding to its difficulties, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into Groupon's accounting and disclosures, areas that raised questions among some analysts during its IPO.

Vivus (VVUS): Vivus’ popularity has, like Arena Pharmaceuticals, been tied to the promise of a new weight loss pill. The company’s Qsymia weight loss drug won U.S. approval in July. Insurance giant Aetna said it would provide coverage for the obesity treatment in November.

However, Vivus is facing its share of challenges. Sales of Qsymia through September came in at $41,000, well short of the $310,000 expected. In November, the company’s largest shareholder started calling for the sale of the company. Shares are up approximately 15% for the year to date.

American International Group (AIG):  Few bailouts were as controversial or scary as the government's rescue of AIG, which ultimately totaled $182 billion in multiple installments.

The U.S. Treasury Department has reduced its stake in the insurer to 16% from 92% in early 2011, and the bottom line is the AIG bailout turned out a lot better than many experts feared.

Much of the government's cash infusion went in the front door of AIG and out the back door to its counterparties, including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, which got paid 100 cents on the dollar for toxic assets. Along with a host of European banks, those firms made out a lot better on the AIG bailout than U.S. taxpayers ever will.

Shares of AIG are up more than 55% for the year.

Alpha Natural Resources (ANR): Shares of Alpha Natural Resources have sunk 65% year-to-date. Coal stocks like Alpha didn’t get any help from President Obama’s reelection, as fears of new regulations gripped the broader sector.

Further compounding Alpha’s problems -- the rise of natural gas. Coal companies have been forced to shut mines and fire workers as demand and prices have fallen and some power stations moved to natural gas. Alpha has slowed production and announced plans to cut 1,200 jobs.

Westport Innovations (WPRT):
Westport Innovations, a maker of engines that run on natural gas, has captured the minds of potential investors. This is no surprise, given rising gas prices and constant reports of the booming  industry. In November, the company announced plans to start production of a long-haul truck engine in 2013.

But that hasn’t assured success. The company reported a wider than expected loss in the third quarter and cut its revenue growth forecast for the year in October. Shares tapped an intraday high of $50.19 on March 21, but have since slid closer to $25. The stock is up just over 1.5% for the year to date.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR)
: The maker of the Keurig coffee machine had a good fourth quarter, with profits rising 22%. In November, it also announced that Coca-Cola executive Brian Kelley would be joining the company as its new CEO, a move that investors hope will help boost slowing sales.

However, the company has been bruised throughout the year. Investors have feared slowing growth and sales, along with competition in the K-cup space. Starbucks introduced its own single-serve brewing machine, the Verismo, this year. Shares of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters have shed nearly 25% of their value since January.

Starbucks (SBUX):  Starbucks ushered in the holiday season with the introduction of a $7 cup of joe. The coffee giant’s ability to entice a constant flow of customers with new -- and apparently ever more expensive -- drinks has helped shares rise more than 20% year to date.

Still, it’s been a bumpy ride. Shares peaked at an intraday high of $62 in April but slid below $45 in August. The stock has recovered since then and is trading closer to $50.

ProShares Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (UVXY):

The ProShares Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures ETF is designed to give exposure to what is informally called “the fear index,” which measure volatility on the S&P 500.

Part of the ETF’s appeal is that it allows traders to place a quick bet on market volatility. The ETF has plunged nearly 100% year to date, but it is largely considered a tool for professional investors to trade in and out of. It isn’t designed to appreciate over long time periods.