Most investors had surprisingly robust returns last year. They bought good companies that turned out to be great stocks. They also bought bad companies that turned out to be great stocks.

Booking Holdings (NASDAQ:BKNG), Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG), and Lyft (NASDAQ:LYFT) are three investments that moved higher in 2020 even as their businesses went the wrong way in the new normal. Let's take a closer look at how these three stocks bucked the backpedaling fundamentals. 

A person working on a laptop and holding a cellphone.

Image source: Getty Images.

Booking Holdings: Up 8%

The travel industry has naturally been hit hard in the new normal. We saw the shares of cruise lines, airlines, and most hotel chains sink in 2020. Why should the leading online travel portal fare any better when the product it's pedaling is out of favor?

With a gain of 8% last year it's not as if the parent company behind Priceline, Booking.com, and Kayak beat the market. It didn't. The shares still inched higher despite Booking's revenue plunging 84% and then 48% in the last two quarters, respectively. The trend may seem to be improving, but with COVID-19 cases surging again in Europe, where it generates the lion's share of its bookings, analysts see the top line falling 65% in its upcoming report.

Booking Holdings will naturally benefit when we're traveling again, but when will that truly recover to levels that justify the stock at all-time highs right now? Leisure travel in general -- and the more lucrative international travel in particular -- isn't bouncing back anytime soon. The state of corporate travel may be permanently changed now that companies realize they can be just as productive with virtual connections. We're also seeing cruise line operators, airline companies, and hoteliers do a better job of establishing direct booking connections with their customers. There are too many question marks for Booking Holdings to have bucked the travel industry's malaise last year. 

A surgeon in scrubs getting ready to operate a da Vinci system.

Image source: Intuitive Surgical.

Intuitive Surgical: Up 38%

Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci surgical system is a tech marvel. The robotic arm -- guided by a trained surgeon -- provides more accurate incisions than humans, delivering better patient outcomes and recovery times for folks coming in for minimally invasive procedures. The long-term potential of Intuitive Surgical is unquestioned, but 2020 was not a good year for the business. 

Revenue has declined in back-to-back quarters at Intuitive Surgical. Analysts see another dip for the quarter that ended two weeks ago. We're seeing some hospitals put elective procedures on hold to make sure there's enough capacity to treat the growing number of COVID-19 cases. Medical institutions also have bigger fish to fry right now than investing in big-ticket equipment like the da Vinci platform. We've seen the number of shipped da Vinci systems decline 35% in the second quarter and 29% in the third quarter. 

Things will get better in 2021. There was actually a 7% increase in the number of da Vinci procedures performed during the third quarter. The installed base of da Vinci systems in place has actually grown by 8% to 5,685 over the past year. There is pent-up demand that will bubble up when the coast is clear, but Intuitive Surgical is expected to post a 5% decline in revenue and a 24% slide in earnings per share for all of 2020. This stock did not deserve to climb 38% higher last year.  

A Lyft driver and three well-dressed passengers in an imaginary Lyft car with a Lyft beacon on the dashboard.

Image source: Lyft.

Lyft: Up 14%

What's worse than being the country's leading ride-hailing platform in the country as folks steer clear of entering stranger cars in a pandemic? Try being the silver medallist. Lyft is the second-largest player in personal mobility. Analysts see a 35% decline in revenue for all of 2020 and a 45% year-over-year plunge for the fourth quarter, which it will report next month. 

We're heading out less than we used to, and that's not going to change in the near term. Lyft also hasn't set itself up as a provider of restaurant delivery to make the most of the spike in takeout orders, a market that its larger rival and other third-party apps have already cornered. Lyft was posting strong growth a year ago, but that momentum isn't going to be easy to win back. The stock didn't deserve last year's double-digit move higher.