The Biggest Winners Since the Bull Market Began

On March 9, 2009, stocks hit what would turn out to be their lowest levels of the bear market of 2008 and early 2009. In the five years since then, investors have seen huge gains in the stock market, with even the major-market benchmarks posting incredible returns of 150% to 200%.

But some sectors and stocks contributed more to the bull-market run than others. With that in mind, let's look at the biggest winners during the past five years for some insight on where the market might go from here.

Winners and losers among market sectors
Among broad-based sectors, consumer discretionary stocks and financial stocks were the two sectors that posted the largest gains among the S&P's major industry groups. Using the Sector Select SPDR ETFs as proxies for each industry, consumer discretionary posted the largest gains, with a 314% rise during the past five years, while financials weren't far behind, with gains of 260%. This makes sense when you think about which sectors were hit hardest during the 2008 bear market, as the recession brought spending on discretionary purchases to a standstill, and the financial crisis brought banks and other financial companies to the brink of failure. Having been hit the hardest, the companies that survived had the most ground to recover.

The gains during the past five years could have been even larger were it not for the lagging performance of utilities and consumer-staples stocks, which posted gains of only 72% and 116%, respectively. With a reputation for being conservative, utilities generally underperform during upward-moving markets in exchange for providing better downside protection when broader markets drop, and during the past year, utilities have faced some pressure from rising interest rates. Similarly, many consumer-staples giants have high dividends and subpar growth potential, making them more suitable for defensive portfolios, and leaving them to trade more like bonds than stocks in many ways.

Which stocks climbed the furthest?
Obviously, the past five years have given investors plenty of success stories. But the surprising thing is that, when you look at the best performing stocks among current S&P 500 stocks during that period, you find a wide variety of different industries represented.

The biggest winners were companies that were essentially left for dead. For instance, topping the list was General Growth Partners , which has gained almost 7,700% during the past five years. In early 2009, General Growth looked primed to be the next casualty of the real-estate crash, with the company filing for bankruptcy in April 2009, and many writing off the company as doomed. Yet, as it turned out, with the help of activist investors, the REIT was able to restructure itself and emerge from bankruptcy without wiping out shareholders. Those who stuck with General Growth profited from the recovery immensely.

Similarly, insurance company Genworth Financial has risen almost twentyfold since the depths of the financial crisis. Insurance companies got hit especially hard during the financial crisis, as many of their annuity products had made guarantees to their policyholders to cover declines in the financial markets. Moreover, with exposure to the mortgage-insurance market, Genworth suffered from the housing crunch, as well. Yet, as insurance markets stabilized, investments recovered, and even the housing market hit bottom -- Genworth found ways to prosper.

But not all of the winners came from the financial and real-estate realm. Wynn Resorts had many investors scared that the long dominion of Macau as the gaming capital of the world would come to an end, hurting a major growth driver for the casino company. Yet, five years later, Wynn shareholders have enjoyed total returns of more than 2,100%, as international strength in gaming has returned even as Las Vegas has had a harder road to recovery than its counterparts across the Pacific. With smart capital management that put Wynn in a better position than some of its more-leveraged peers, the stock's performance showed the value of strong leadership in difficult times.

In addition, innovation still proved to be a money-making strategy for investors. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals largely treaded water until 2011, when it won FDA approval for its Eylea drug to treat macular degeneration. During 2012, the stock more than tripled, as demand for Eylea made the drug a blockbuster. With $2.1 billion in total revenue, Regeneron has justified its ascent, with gains of more than 2,500% to show for its shareholders.

Five more years?
Obviously, it's too early to tell whether the bull market will end tomorrow or keep running for years to come. But even with impressive gains, you can still find many stocks that have the potential for even further growth. If they succeed in realizing that potential, they could help keep the stock market healthy well into the future.

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