As 2011 comes to a close, it's a great time to look back at what happened to the stocks that interest you. By making sure you know the important things that a company accomplished -- as well as the setbacks it experienced -- you can make a better decision about whether it's a smart investment for your portfolio.

Today, let's take a look at North American Palladium (AMEX: PAL). This small Canadian company stands out from the crowd as one of only two palladium miners on the North American continent. But after several years of strong gains for platinum-group metals, 2011 saw price declines -- and that hurt the stock's performance. Below, I'll take a closer look at the events that moved North American Palladium's shares this year.

Stats on North American Palladium

Year-to-Date Stock Return (65.4%)
Market Cap $391 million
Total Revenue, Trailing 12 Months $155 million
Net Loss, Trailing 12 Months ($3.5 million)
1-Year Revenue Growth 134.5%
CAPS Rating ****

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Why did North American Palladium plunge this year?
North American Palladium is a small Canadian miner with two primary mine properties. Its Sleeping Giant mine in Quebec is a gold mine, but more unusual is the company's Lac des Iles mine, which produces palladium. Despite its lower price -- palladium currently trades between $600 and $700 per ounce -- palladium is a much rarer metal than gold and has significant commercial uses, such as in catalytic converters for auto production.

Moreover, there are relatively few palladium producers. Stillwater Mining (NYSE: SWC) has two platinum and palladium mines in Montana, while Anooraq Resources (NYSE: ANO) has headquarters in South Africa.

After several years of gains, palladium finally gave back ground in 2011, as one look at the bullion-tracking ETFS Physical Palladium ETF (NYSE: PALL) will reveal. Because of North American Palladium's fairly high cash production costs, profits took a big hit. Despite strength in the industry, automakers like Ford (NYSE: F) are reluctant to repeat mistakes they made the last time prices spiked upward.

Investors are undoubtedly scared of North American Palladium falling victim to the same trend that has seen rare-earth metal plays Molycorp (NYSE: MCP) and Rare Element Resources (AMEX: REE) post severe losses in 2011. But North American Palladium has both proven production and a healthy mainstream industrial demand for its products. What it needs to succeed is a better operational structure to work more efficiently and turn losses into profits.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.