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3 Most Improved Stocks of 2012

With the year almost over, it's a good time to look back at 2012's biggest winners and losers. Sitting on a 135% gain, Sprint is leading the market in year-to-date returns. On the other side of the S&P 500 scorecard we have the for-profit educator Apollo Group, which is staring at a painful 62% loss on the year.

But today, I'm looking at three stocks that were both big losers and huge winners on the year. They began with massive losses but managed to close out on a strong note and are candidates for 2012's most improved stocks.

Moderating growth
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (UNKNOWN: GMCR.DL  ) is one good example. The company had a bitter first half of the year. Its manic growth story hit the skids starting in the second quarter, when it reported a lower-than-expected jump in sales. Green Mountain blamed unseasonably warm weather as a likely culprit, but it also warned of "moderated growth" looking forward. And the company's third-quarter results were more of the same, with CEO Lawrence J. Blanford admitting that Green Mountain was transitioning "from hyper-growth to a level more in-line with other successful growth businesses." Competition started entering the K-Cup home brewing market, including from Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) . The coffee powerhouse sees its Verismo home brewing machine as its ticket into an $8 billion market opportunity. Under these pressures, Green Mountain's stock hit a low near $17 in late July. Shares were trading at just 10 times trailing earnings, quite an adjustment from the P/E of 80 that the company enjoyed last year.

But since those dark days, Green Mountain's shares have had a great run, up by more than 120% in five months. The company has been having no trouble beating those sharply lowered expectations. It trounced earnings estimates last quarter, booking a 23% rise in profit on a 33% jump in revenue. And Green Mountain's shares aren't valued at the fire-sale prices we saw this summer. They now trade at 17 times earnings.

Playing games
Video game retailer GameStop (NYSE: GME  ) had a roller coaster of a year, too. The company looked like a lost cause for much of 2012. With gamer dollars flocking to online games and apps, the company's entire business model looked out of place. Declining video game sales fed into stagnating console sales as the company reported its sixth straight quarter of falling comparable sales in the second quarter. Shares hit a low near $15 in early August.

Yet the stock is up more than 75% since then, and the specialty retailer is actually outperforming the market on the year. Innovation finally came to the hardware side of the industry, with Nintendo rolling out the first next-generation game system in more than six years. And new video games are moving the needle too. Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty and Microsoft's Halo games set records when they came out in November. GameStop also made some investor-friendly moves that the market cheered. It initiated a generous dividend and started using its strong cash flow to aggressively buy back its own shares.

Making friends
Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) isn't a full year old yet, but its inaugural months as a public company have been among the market's most volatile. The company fell more than 50% after its controversial IPO, hitting $18 a share in late August. Worries about how the company could ever monetize its massive user base sent the stock down through the spring and summer. The economics of mobile advertising haven't looked promising. Even search giant Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) couldn't figure out how to unlock the business potential there, as it reported a 16% drop in cost-per-click revenue in the second quarter on surging mobile traffic.

But these days, things are looking a bit brighter for the social network. Facebook shares are up nearly 60% since hitting those August lows. The company rolled out new advertising options, like sponsored stories, which performed well. It is even having some success with mobile advertising, reporting 14% of advertising revenue from that source in the third quarter. With user engagement still growing and a global mobile audience of more than 600 million people a month, the company has plenty of opportunity to build a business around those users.

Foolish bottom line
So which of these companies could continue their win streak into 2013? I like Facebook's prospects the best here. The company rebuilt its mobile app for iOS and grew its user base by more than 25% in the third quarter. Monetization efforts have shown real progress. And, despite the run-up, shares are still well below the IPO price. Facebook stumbled badly out of the gate this year, but it's a long race, with plenty of room for changes in fortune.

More expert advice from The Motley Fool
After the world's most hyped IPO turned out to be a dunce, most investors probably don't even want to think about shares of Facebook. But there are things every investor needs to know about this company. We've outlined them in our newest premium research report. There's a lot more to Facebook than meets the eye, so read up on whether there is anything to "like" about it today, and we'll tell you whether we think Facebook deserves a place in your portfolio. Access your report by clicking here.

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