The first quarter of the year is history, in more ways than one.
It was Wall Street's worst in more than five years, and it was equally tumultuous for investors. When even a conservative, short-term bond fund sheds nearly 20% of its value during a single quarter, you know things are ugly.
But not every stock went down for the count. Several equities overcame the market's heady tailwinds to produce healthy gains.
That's it for good news. Many of the best-performing stocks so far in 2008 are still trading well below last year's highs. In fact, four of this past quarter's five biggest gainers have shed between 32% and 62% of their value over the past four quarters.
Let's go over five of the stocks that defied the market's gravity during the quarter.
Finish Line (Nasdaq: FINL ) +96.7%
The athletic footwear maker was Wall Street's top stock during the quarter, nearly doubling in value despite its botched buyout bid. It went on to pad those gains with a huge 22% gain yesterday.
Finish Line is coming off better-than-expected results in its latest period. Despite a slump in sales during the critical holiday quarter, earnings from continuing operations of $0.45 a share for the period easily lapped the $0.35 a share that analysts expected.
The company still faces plenty of challenges, particularly its need to get its comps heading in the right direction and overcome its jilted-bride heartbreak. Still, that shouldn't be a problem, as long as Finish Line can sustain its profitability.
BPZ Energy (AMEX: BZP ) +94.4%
The oil and gas exploration company with interests in Latin America is riding high, thanks both to a pop in energy prices and timely discoveries in Peru.
The market is catching on. Over the past three months, Wall Street's profit targets for 2008 have gone from $0.43 a share to $0.74 a share. Come 2009, the market expects earnings to more than double from that figure, to $1.61 a share. A lot can happen between now and then, but this is a standout among the standouts, with shares more than tripling over the past 12 months.
CSK Auto (NYSE: CAO ) +85.8%
This auto-parts retailer added to its stunning first-quarter return yesterday, soaring another 26% after agreeing to be acquired by rival O'Reilly Automotive (Nasdaq: ORLY ) . You know that CSK is quite the catch when even shares of O'Reilly climbed after paying a premium for CSK.
Normally, a buyout is the end of a Cinderella story. But the way the volatile market has spit out deals -- just ask Finish Line -- you may as well keep an eye on CSK until the deal is done.
Orchard (Nasdaq: ORCD ) +81.2%
Digital music has a new story stock in Orchard. The company was born when publicly traded Digital Music Group acquired the larger Orchard. As an indie label with a digital distribution bent, Orchard is hoping that it's nimble enough to work, even as the old-school major labels struggle to cash in on the future of music. Unlike its stodgier peers, Orchard relies on Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iTunes Music Store for most of its revenue.
I singled out Orchard in my 5 Stocks Under $10 column last November. Unfortunately, I was too early. Even with an 81% return over the past three months, shares still trading below the price they commanded when I highlighted the company.
The company isn't profitable, but it is growing more quickly than the digital music industry as a whole. Orchard saw its revenue climb 91% last year, a headier pace than the 40% niche growth rate projected by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Celsion (Nasdaq: CLN ) +80.1%
Biotechs have been under pressure lately, unless they're crossing favorable milestones. That would be Celsion's secret to a sharp first-quarter run. Back in January, the company got welcome news from the FDA on its ThermoDox oncology drug.
Yes, Celsion is losing still losing money, but that's natural for biotechs as they work their way through the tedious drug-approval process. Celsion still has a way to go before its ThermoDox has a shot at treating patients with liver and breast cancer, so expect the shares to remain volatile.
Don't hold out for an encore
The major first-quarter winners are unlikely to turn in a repeat performance, though they have all earned the right to swim upstream against the cascade that Wall Street became in Q1 2008. These companies' fundamentals are all in better shape today than they were three months ago.
That's important. As a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers analyst team, I'm always on the lookout for promising companies early in their growth cycles. I'm not sure if any of these winners will earn recommendations in the growth-stock service, but they've certainly turned heads, even when their fellow publicly traded companies are shaking theirs.