Even in 2008, the year of our financial discontent, there were winners. I set out to find them.

I looked for the top performer in each sector, with only these restrictions: The company had to have a market cap of at least $1 billion at the beginning of the year and sell on a major U.S. stock exchange. Without further ado:

Industry

Company

2008 Return

Energy

Comstock Resources (NYSE:CRK)

39%

Materials

Eldorado Gold (AMEX:EGO)

66%

Industrials

Clean Harbors

23%

Consumer discretionary

Dollar Tree

61%

Consumer staples

UST

27%

Health care

Valeant Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:VRX)

91%

Financials

Capitol Federal Financial

55%

Information technology

ManTech International (NASDAQ:MANT)

24%

Telecommunications services

Telecomunicacoes de Sao Paulo (NYSE:TSP)

1%

Utilities

Piedmont Natural Gas (NYSE:PNY)

21%

Average

 

40%

S&P 500

 

(38%)

Sources: Capital IQ (a division of Standard and Poor's) and Yahoo! Finance.

Let's be clear: The list certainly can't compete with comparable lists from prior years -- there wasn't a single stock that doubled in value. Of course, when the S&P 500 drops by 38%, anything above zero is a windfall. And surprisingly, there was at least one positive gainer in each sector (even in financials).

The obvious question before us is, "Will 2008's winners be 2009's winners?" Before we try to draw any conclusions, let's see what happened to 2007's winners:

Industry

Company

2007 Return

2008 Return

Energy

Yanzhou Coal Mining

146%

(63%)

Materials

Mosaic

342%

(63%)

Industrials

First Solar

795%

(48%)

Consumer discretionary

priceline

163%

(36%)

Consumer staples

Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods

138%

(80%)

Health care

Intuitive Surgical

237%

(61%)

Financials

Credicorp (NYSE:BAP)

86%

(35%)

Information technology

Baidu.com

246%

(67%)

Telecommunications services

Vimpel-Communications

182%

(83%)

Utilities

Reliant Energy

85%

(78%)

Average

 

242%

(61%)

S&P 500

 

4%

(38%)

Sources: Capital IQ (a division of Standard and Poor's) and Yahoo! Finance.

All right, that's a lot of data. So what can we learn from it?

The lessons
Two years of data isn't enough evidence to draw definitive conclusions, but we can certainly gain some insight as we figure out what to do with our portfolios for the year ahead.

With that caveat, I see two lessons:

1. There are winners in just about any market. Even in a year as brutal as 2008, we saw winners in every sector. Of course, finding those winners is the tricky part. Of the 1,939 companies larger than $1 billion, just 121 posted a gain in 2008.

2. We can't just blindly follow the winners. Although 2007's winners averaged a 242% gain in 2007, they fell significantly harder than the average stock in 2008. So the idea of simply buying 2008's winners probably isn't our best bet. As we saw with 2008, a lot changes in a year.

Are winners worth it?
Seeing the precipitous drop in 2007's top-performing stocks, another obvious question remains: Is it worth it to hold onto winners?

To quantify the best-case scenario, let's look at Microsoft -- the granddaddy of all growth stories. Starting with its March 1986 IPO and ending with 1999, just before the tech bubble crash, its calendar-year returns were:

  • 75%
  • 129%
  • (3%)
  • 65%
  • 71%
  • 123%
  • 15%
  • (5%)
  • 52%
  • 43%
  • 88%
  • 56%
  • 115%
  • 68%

That's a more than 60,000% return in less than a decade and a half. Even with the turbulence of the tech crash and the recent credit crunch, Microsoft has returned about 20,000% from its IPO.

Yet during its amazing run, Microsoft never achieved a one-year return as high as eight of 2007's 10 sector leaders. Instead, we see in Microsoft the beauty of multiple years of compounding returns. But we have to ask ourselves whether a company generating a great one-year return is the next Microsoft, or one of the thousands of companies that will fall well short.

David Gardner, the Fool's co-founder and advisor of our Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter, believes it's worth holding onto your winning stocks -- even during market turbulence. His philosophy is to find great companies and hold on for the long term, rather than trying to time his entries and exits. Sure, selling Microsoft right before the tech bubble burst would have been a great move. But on the flip side, an investor locking in triple-digit Microsoft gains after a dip in 1988 would have forgone a fortune.

Often, the stocks David recommends are highfliers -- the type of stocks that make lists like the ones above. As we've seen, buying hot stocks (or any stocks for that matter) can be risky. Investor sentiment (and the resulting price of a hot stock) skyrockets when times are good and plummets when times are bad.

Fortunately, when investor sentiment turns (as it has over the last year or so), long-term buy-and-hold investors can get tomorrow's hot stocks at a discount. In fact, right now David likes two of 2007's winners. If you're curious, you can see all the stocks he believes will flourish with a 30-day free trial to Rule Breakers. There's no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published Jan. 13, 2009. It has been updated.

Anand Chokkavelu owns shares of Intuitive Surgical and Microsoft. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Intuitive Surgical and Baidu.com are Rule Breakers selections. priceline.com is a Stock Advisor pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.