By Maureen Farrell, Ben Rooney, and Hibah Yousuf
December 19, 2012

Winning big

Despite another mid-year sell-off, the stock market has logged a strong performance this year, with the S&P 500 up nearly 15% through mid-December.

Fortune 500 companies have had a banner year too, with almost 80% of those companies posting gains. Roughly 60% have enjoyed double-digit percentage increases. And of the top 10 best performers among the Fortune 500 companies, eight have had triple-digit jumps.

Among the best performers were Bank of America (BAC) and Whirlpool (WHR), which are benefiting from the rebound in the housing market. A number of oil refiners have also booked stellar gains.

Click through to see the top 10 Fortune 500 performers (counting down from good to great), based on their closing prices as of Dec. 7.

#10 Marathon Petroleum

Spun out of Marathon Oil (MRO) in June 2011, Marathon Petroleum (MPC) refines, markets, and transports oil through refineries in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. The company also has a large retail presence in the Midwest.

Under pressure from activist investor Jana Partners, Marathon Petroleum spun off its pipeline operations, taking MPLX LP (MPLX) public in October. Since then, shares of that limited partnership have increased 41%. At Jana Partners’ urging, Marathon Petroleum agreed to buy back $2 billion worth of shares in February as well.

The petroleum company also spent $2.5 billion to acquire BP’s (BP) Texas City refinery, the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers. The company said the refinery is safe now, and analysts think it will give Marathon more room to expand in the growing Gulf Coast region.

The biggest concern is demand. Should a slowing economy dampen oil prices, Marathon Petroleum could take a big hit in 2013.

#9 Bank of America

After a rough 2011, Bank of America (BAC) has benefited from a housing rebound and a better lending environment.

The bank’s revenues and profits got a healthy boost this year from new mortgage originations and an increase in corporate lending.

Bank of America also cleared a few hurdles, including a $2.3 billion settlement with shareholders related to its acquisition of Merrill Lynch.

But the bank isn’t completely out of the woods. Those profits were offset by high costs for servicing pre-crisis loans that were delinquent or defaulted.

Bank of America also added another potential litigation landmine in October, when the U.S. government initiated a lawsuit against the bank for allegedly selling defective mortgages to consumers.

The company appears to be on the right path, but the stock still has a ways to go. Shares remain 81% below their 2006 all-time high of $55.08.

#8 Dillard's

Department store retailer Dillard’s (DDS) mostly serves customers in the middle of the country, catering to people looking for a price-point somewhere between Macy’s (M) and Nordstrom (JWN).

By moving slightly more upscale over the past several years, Dillard’s has managed to pinpoint what its customers want and what keeps them coming back. Sales at stores open more than one year consistently beat analysts’ forecasts in 2012.

Unlike most of its competitors, Dillard’s owns most of its underlying real estate within shopping malls. That’s helped make Dillard’s more attractive to investors, as the real estate market started to rebound.

The Little Rock, Ark.-based retailer also continued to buy back its shares. Finally, Dillard’s investors got a December stocking stuffer — a $5-per-share special dividend.

Analysts have cheered Dillard’s ability to stand apart from peers like J.C. Penney (JCP) and Kohl’s (KSS). Should the firm keep up the stellar work, J.P. Morgan’s analysts think the stock has room to run.

#7 HollyFrontier

HollyFrontier is in a sweet spot in the oil industry thanks to a glut of cheap crude oil in the central United States.

The Dallas-based independent oil company operates five refineries that pump out more than 400,000 barrels a day.

Even though it’s a relatively small player, HollyFrontier’s (HFC) ability to buy crude at a discount helped push the company’s third-quarter earnings to a record high.

That’s largely because of HollyFrontier’s close proximity to Cushing, Okla. The lack of a pipeline to the Gulf Coast has made it difficult to get oil out of Cushing, but HollyFrontier has gained a competitive edge by keeping the cheaper-priced West Texas Intermediate oil flowing to its refiners.

Analysts expect that trend to continue, and that could be good news for HollyFrontier’s shareholders. The company has already increased its quarterly dividend and also declared a special 50 cents- per-share dividend in November.

#6 Whirlpool

Whirlpool’s rally has been driven, in part, by hopes the appliance maker will benefit from a rebound in the housing market.

Whirlpool (WHR) has also been cutting costs and raising prices in an effort to boost its profit margins.

The company raised its outlook in October, saying it expects to earn up to $7.10 per share in 2012, which translates to annual earnings growth of 5.5%. Whirlpool also expects to end the year with as much as $175 million in cash.

Analysts expect earnings to continue rising in 2013. But given the run Whirlpool stock has had this year, the growth may already be priced in.

#5 OfficeMax

OfficeMax (OMX) staged a comeback this year, but the company remains a relative lightweight in the office supply space.

Shares of OfficeMax got a boost in November, after wood products manufacturer Boise Cascade announced plans to raise $200 million through an initial public offering. OfficeMax owns a 20% equity stake in Boise Cascade plus additional shares that altogether could be worth $310 million once Boise goes public, according to Morningstar.

That would be a nice chunk of change for OfficeMax, which has a market capitalization of roughly $850 million. But it’s probably not enough to make up for a lack of competitiveness in a market dominated by Staples (SPLS) and mass merchandise retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT)and Amazon (AMZN).

For the year, analysts expect OfficeMax to report a 2% drop in revenue, although earnings are forecast to rise 24% versus last year.

#4 Western Refining

Western Refining (WNR) is an independent oil refiner that operates more than 200 retail gas stations in the Southwest and sells petroleum products to wholesalers.

Based in El Paso, Texas, Western has benefited from increased oil production in the United States and Canada.

The company’s two refineries are set up to process light, sweet crude, which has been selling at a discount to the heavier stuff used by other refiners.

As a result, Western’s margins have expanded significantly compared with its main rivals.

The company has also managed to reduce a heavy debt burden related to its 2007 acquisition of Giant Industries, as well as make investments to increase capacity.

Western should be well positioned to benefit from a potential energy boom in the United States, which is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer before 2020.

#3 CVR Energy

Shares of CVR Energy (CVI) have soared to record highs this year as billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn made the company his biggest holding, not counting Icahn Enterprises (IEP), of course.

In January, Icahn picked up a 14.5% percent stake in CVR, saying shares were undervalued. In May, Icahn boosted his stake to about 80%, and a month later, he was named chairman of the oil refiner’s board.

Icahn went on a mission to sell the company and named Valero (VLO), Western Refining (WNR), HollyFrontier (HFC), Tesoro (TSO), Marathon Petroleum (MPC) and ConocoPhilips (COP) as possible buyers.

After failing to receive any credible offers, Icahn offered to take the company private in early August. Two weeks later, the billionaire withdrew his offer, citing market conditions. But Icahn remains the company’s largest investor.

Meanwhile, CVR has also delivered strong earnings, topping expectations each quarter this year. During the most recent quarter, CVR posted a profit of $209 million, nearly double from a year earlier, as sales surged almost 80%.

#2 Sprint Nextel

Sprint (S) has been losing subscribers to rivals AT&T (T)and Verizon (VZ) for several years, but things are starting to look a little brighter for the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier.

Sprint finally began selling Apple (AAPL) iPhones at the end of 2011, a move that has helped the company improve its sales. Sprint shares got their first big boost in July, after the carrier reported an 8% bump in its wireless service revenue, as it sold nearly 1.5 million iPhones.

The company’s stock got a second solid bump after Sprint confirmed that it was negotiating to sell a controlling stake to Japanese tech giant SoftBank. Within a few days, Sprint announced an agreement to sell a 70% stake to SoftBank in a deal worth more than $20 billion.

The deal infuses Sprint with about $8 billion in much-needed capital, bolstering its ability to make acquisitions. And Sprint has already acted. In December, it made a bid to gain full control of Clearwire, in which it already has a 50.4% stake. Through the Clearwire (CLWR) deal, Sprint would own the rights to the largest swath of wireless spectrum.

#1 US Airways Group

Since the start of the year, US Airways (LCC) shares have been on a tear as the airline pursues a merger with AMR Corporation, the parent of American Airlines and American Eagle, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of 2011.

US Airways, the nation’s fifth-largest carrier, first acknowledged the possibility of a merger in January, when it disclosed that it had hired advisers to explore a possible deal. Speculation continued to build throughout the year. In December, American confirmed that it has shared confidential financial information with US Airways management as part of discussions for a possible deal, which the industry’s major unions support.

US Airways mostly operates domestically and faces stiff competition from low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines (LUV). But analysts say a merger with American would make it a much bigger player internationally.

You May Like