The S&P 500 Index is considered the go-to broad measure of the U.S. domestic equity market. Its 500 components represent the biggest stocks in the market, and they also represent a cross section of the universe of stocks from virtually every major market sector.
In what has proven to be an extremely volatile year for the market, it might come as no surprise that the S&P 500 saw some really big winners — and some very big losers — in 2011. So, what names top the “best” and “worst” list this year? Here are the top five heroes and top five villains in the S&P 500 through the first 11 months of the year.
Let’s start with the good news first:
#5 Best: Intuitive Surgical, +69%
Medical device maker Intuitive Surgical‘s (NASDAQ:ISRG) marquee product is the da Vinci Surgical System, which uses wrist-operated instruments and 3D visual technology. The growing popularity of the da Vinci system among doctors has helped make this S&P 500 stock grow a healthy 69% in 2011.
#4 Best: MasterCard, +70.4%
Credit card issuer MasterCard (NYSE:MA) had a stellar year, and it is on pace to see a very strong end to 2011 as holiday retail sales outpace expectations. As consumers continue to use their MasterCard to process transactions, the company should keep ringing the register. That might lead to even further gains in the stock on top of the 70.4% upside MA shares have seen through the first 11 months of the year.
#3 Best: Biogen Idec, +73.7%
Biotechnology firm Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB) makes several high-profile therapies, including Avonex and Tysabri, which are used for the treatment of relapsing multiple sclerosis, and Rituxan for treating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Shares of the biotech winner are up 73.7% in 2011, and that’s proved to be potent fiscal therapy for shareholders.
#2 Best: El Paso Corp., +82.3%
Natural gas transmission and pipeline firm El Paso Corp. (NYSE:EP) proved that natural gas was big business in 2011. The stock has transmitted an 82.3% gain to shareholders this year, putting it second on the list of S&P 500 heroes for the year.
#1 Best: Cabot Oil & Gas, +127.1%
Natural gas also is part of the equation for the year’s biggest S&P 500 winner, Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE:COG). The company, which also engages in the exploration, production and marketing of natural crude oil, and liquid natural gas, holds reserves in north region comprising Appalachian and Rocky Mountains areas, as well as the Anadarko Basin. The combined efforts of the energy producer powered COG shares 127.1% higher for the year, making it the biggest winner through the first 11 months.
Now for the bad news — here are the worst S&P 500 performers for the year:
#5 Worst: Alpha Natural Resources, -60%
Coal company Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) handed a big lump to shareholders in 2011 with a descent of 60% through the first 11 months of the year. This is one energy company that did anything but energize shareholder’s portfolios.
#4 Worst: Netflix, -61.8%
The downbeat saga for DVD distributor Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) really hit the big screen this year. After being one of the biggest market heroes for a couple years, the script was flipped on the stock, as investors shunned the company’s horrible decision to split its DVD and streaming divisions. The company later rescinded the decision, but the big damage to shareholders already had been done.
#3 Worst: MEMC Electronic Materials, -63%
Solar stocks were among the worst performers in the entire market in 2011, as the sector’s cause was hurt by the high-profile bankruptcy of politically connected firm Solyndra. MEMC Electronics Materials (NYSE:WFR), once a darling of the clean-tech investing wave, powered down a dismal 63% loss in 2011.
#2 Worst: First Solar, -63.5%
The nosedive in First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) could mean the sun has now officially set on solar stocks. The 63.5% plunge in FSLR shows how stocks can go from being a market darling one year — the way First Solar was in 2007 — to a market goat just a few short years later.
#1 Worst: Monster Worldwide, -69.5%
Topping the list of worst S&P 500 stocks is employment solutions services firm Monster Worldwide (NYSE:MWW). The company’s shares were down 69.5% in 2011, making a truly monstrous showing for shareholders. A persistently high unemployment rate still close to 9% has really hurt a job site like Monster, and until the employment picture in the overall economy improves, look for MWW shares to continue being cellar dwellers.
Of course, it’d be hard to compile a “worst” list without this special mention …
Special Mention: Bank of America, -58.4%
Finally, honorable mention goes to a stock that barely missed the worst list, Bank of America (NYSE:BAC). BAC shares were down 58.4% through the first 11 months of the year, which put it sixth on the worst list. The widely held stock was the poster child for financials — a sector that suffered mightily in an über-volatile 2011.
As of this writing, Jim Woods did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned stocks. Check out InvestorPlace.com’s other looks back at 2011 and ahead to 2012 here.