As the Christmas festivities wind down (and notwithstanding the slightly lower work rate as we keep one eye on the cricket), investors look to take stock of the year that was.
While the fiscal cliff negotiations have added a little spice to an otherwise quiet time of year on the stockmarket, the past 12 months have delivered a very welcome positive return to salve some of the still-raw memories of the global financial crisis.
As of Christmas Eve, the All Ordinaries had gained 17.0 per cent this year, increasing to 18.4 per cent when dividends are included, according to data from Capital IQ.
That's a very strong return, both in absolute terms and compared with the long-run average market return of between 9 and 11 per cent per annum (depending on the index and timeframe).
It's also a time of reckoning for those of us who've put our recommendations out into the public domain. At least it should be - analysts and commentators aren't held anywhere near as accountable as they (we!) should be. The same should be true of your advisor, by the way!
A pleasing result
Readers may recall we stuck our necks out to select our top stock picks for 2012 at the beginning of the year.
To be fair, the picks weren't chosen just for an arbitrary 365-day period - there's nothing magic about the turning of a calendar, and investing is a long-term pursuit best judged over years, not weeks or months. We selected companies we thought represented good value at the beginning of January on the basis of their attractiveness to long-term investors.
The good news is that results thus far have been very pleasing. Three of the four companies we featured have beaten the market - two of those more than doubling the market's return. The fourth company unfortunately delivered negative returns.
Since that article was published on January 4, the All Ordinaries Index - including dividends - has advanced a very nice 17.1 per cent.
Our four-stock portfolio managed to put on 22.1 per cent, handily beating the index. Not bad for a blue-chip selection of companies that never offered the promise of speculative resources or biotech companies, but also bought less potential for risk.
One loser and three winners
Our worst performer was the trouble-plagued QBE Insurance (ASX: QBE). Despite putting on some nice gains by midway through 2012, the company's shares suffered at the hands of (somewhat understandably) impatient investors who lost faith with its management and earnings downgrades.
The total return for QBE was a loss of 13.9 per cent, a result which was helped by solid dividends through the year, reminding investors of the value of regular dividends as part of our share returns.
Our third-placed company was Coca-Cola Amatil (ASX: CCL). The soft-drink king had a reasonably good year of financial performance, and shareholders benefited by 20.3 per cent, despite some less-than-exciting sales growth announced just a fortnight ago.
Already dominating the Australian soft-drink market, the company's sales growth prospects - at least in the short term - are somewhat muted, but good cost control and exposure to the exciting Indonesian market have seen investors keep faith with Coca-Cola Amatil.
Our runner-up - by the smallest of margins - was the telecommunications giant Telstra (ASX: TLS). Years of underperformance meant we were being offered a very attractive price at the turn of the year, and taking advantage of the market's pessimism - and a healthy dividend - made Telstra a strong addition to this list.
Telstra delivered a 40.7 per cent return this year, as the company earned its way back into investors' good graces with consistent levels of performance, improving customer service, some promised cash from the NBN and strong mobile data growth.
The best performer in our quartet was Westfield Group (ASX: WDC), which pipped Telstra by bringing in a 41.3 per cent return this year.
Another company that spent much of the past few years in the investment dog house, Westfield - like Telstra - just looked too cheap to ignore when we made our picks, and so it turned out to be. The shopping centre king convinced investors that the worst was behind it and that the company had been unfairly beaten down.
Throwing in a brighter future as consumer spending returns to normal in the US and Europe and the company's expansion into South America, and Westfield went to the top of our scorecard.
Selecting stocks "for 2012" is always a difficult task. Sometimes our thesis will take longer to play out, sometimes we get blindsided, and sometimes we'll just be plain wrong.
Still, the process has been instructive. Things go wrong and diversification is important. Keeping score is imperative. Dividends matter and you don't have to look for penny stocks to beat the index. Lastly, the opportunity to buy quality businesses when they're on sale is a tried and tested way to strong investment returns.
For 2012, we earned our keep.
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Scott Phillips is a Motley Fool investment analyst and a fan of Shakespeare. You can follow Scott on Twitter @TMFGilla. The Motley Fool's purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691).