For all the doom and gloom associated with the broader economy—historic unemployment in the United States, debt woes and mandated austerity in Europe—it’s been a remarkably positive year for the stock market. As we enter the last week of 2010, the S&P 500 index is up nearly 13 percent for the year. That’s far from a record (1954 witnessed a breakneck 45 percent rise), but at least the index this year climbed above the level hit before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September, 2008. The stock comeback story is not unique to America, either; this week, Korea’s stocks hit their highest level in more than three years.
At one time, the gurgling stock market would have been a fairly reliable predictor for a healthy economy in the near future—and who knows, that may still be the case. More bearish observers point to artificial stimulants, like an unsustainable commodity bubble and the Fed’s quantitative easing policy.
Regardless, a lot of equity holders will be popping Champagne (or prosecco) this week. Our chart below shows the top ten performers in the S&P 500 for the year—so what does it tell us? Well, the best-performing stock of the year is Cummins Inc., an Indiana-based company that makes power generators and diesel engines. Not surprisingly, its strong market performance this year is based on healthy sales abroad, particularly in emerging markets enjoying the rise in commodity prices. Another top performer has been AIG, the once-mighty insurer which lost nearly all of its value in 2009 but has made a strong comeback thanks to a massive taxpayer bailout. Two other financial firms that also flirted with the abyss made the top ten.