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The best performing stocks of 2021: big and small
We might have thought we’d seen it all after 2020 but it’s been quite a year in 2021 too with an impressive rebound for the markets from the ravages of the pandemic.
But which stocks have done best? Read on to discover the top performers up and down the market cap spectrum and find out why they’ve done so well. For the purposes of this article we’ve deliberately excluded investment trusts.
£4 billion+ market cap
Shares in media group Future (FUTR) have more than doubled as it has continued a highly successful strategy that involves making acquisitions of undervalued publishing assets and monetising their editorial content through a central platform.
Future has recently made two key strategic acquisitions, the financial services and utilities comparison platform GoCo, and a portfolio of brands from Dennis Publishing including Kiplinger, The Week, Money Week and ITPRo.
Its wide range of websites enables it to generate engaging stories and information on products including hi-fi equipment, bikes and computer games. Future generates commission if readers click on links in its articles to buy goods.
For the second year running, equipment rental firm Ashtead (AHT) has rewarded shareholders with a stellar performance in terms of earnings and share price return.
In the six months to October rental revenues climbed 20% to a record $3.9 billion as the firm gained market share and expanded its footprint.
us President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill means the firm still has an enormous growth opportunity in front of it.
By its own admission, 2021 has been an extraordinary year for building materials and insulation firm Kingspan (KGP) (pictured).
As well as strong demand from the new-build housing market and a boom in the repair, maintenance and improvement market due to the work from home trend, demand for its energy-efficient products from large customers such as data centres has also soared.
The stock remains a popular ESG (environmental, social and governance) play with retail investors.
After years of false dawns, high street institution Marks & Spencer (MKS) finally bounced back into fashion. It has twice this year said that earnings were ahead of expectations.
In the New Year, investors will be keeping tabs on the progress of its food business, transformed through a joint venture with Ocado (OCDO), as well as the ongoing makeover of the clothing and home division.
Airtel Africa (AAF) is a sub-Saharan mobile network operator. So far, so boring, but its far more exciting, and higher margin, Mobile Money solution Airtel Mobile Commerce makes all the difference.
AMC, which has pulled in investment from the Qatar Investment Authority and Mastercard, plays banker to Africa’s ‘unbanked’ millions, a vital service to communities that are often isolated by large distances and underdeveloped infrastructure. It won a licence to operate in Nigeria in November.
The strong performance of aerospace engineer Meggitt (MGGT) in 2021 reflects a £6.3 billion takeover by US rival Parker-Hannifin which is still to be cleared by UK regulators.
Parker-Hannifin agreed a deal in August and a rival US suitor TransDigm pulled out of the running in September. For its part Meggitt is confident the deal will go through in 2022 despite it being referred to the Competition and Markets Authority by UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in October.
A super-charged run for engineering firm IMI (IMI) in recent months began in earnest with a bullish first quarter update which showed margins, profit and cash flow higher not just than a pandemic-affected 2020 but 2019 too.
IMI, which makes valves and smart devices for managing the flow of liquids and gases, raised its earnings guidance again in November, suggesting it is doing a good job of managing the supply chain issues which have hit many global industrial firms.
£1 billion to £4 billion market cap
Watches of Switzerland’s (WOSG) 145% share price rise was underpinned by strong demand for its luxury watches.
Led by CEO Brian Duffy, the luxury timepiece seller profited from broad-based growth in the UK and US, supported by investments in marketing, stores and systems, with online sales ticking higher even after its brick and mortar stores reopened from lockdown.
The Rolex-to-TAG Heuer watches purveyor is well-stocked for Christmas 2021 and in 2022, investors will be watching for further progress with its US expansion strategy, advanced by the acquisition of five stores across the pond.
Israeli cyber security firm Kape Technologies (KAPE:AIM) is steadily building what nobody else thus far has; an all-in-one consumer platform to manage all aspects of online autonomy for a secure and accessible personal digital life.
Having amassed a portfolio of subscription-based software products it really took the bull by the horns in September by acquiring ExpressVPN in a $936 million deal.
Marketing business Next Fifteen’s (NFC:AIM) success has been predicated upon its ability to help businesses connect with customers in an increasingly digital world. Its shares rose by 113%.
A key driver of growth has been the custom delivery business that incorporates data analytics to anticipate the future needs of customers. In the first half of the year it almost doubled operating profit.
In a recent third quarter trading update management highlighted that results for the year to January 2022 will be ahead of expectations.
Shares in pharmaceutical company Indivior (INDV), which specialises in medicines to treat drug abuse and mental illness, have more than doubled in 2021 on the back of increased earnings guidance from management, driven by better than expected sales growth in key opioid dependency drug Sublocade.
Analysts have struggled to keep up with events which is reflected in the consensus 2021 earnings forecast increasing by 150% over the course of the year. Shares receiving persistent earnings upgrades tend to outperform the market.
Also helping momentum in the stock has been the firm’s $100 million share buyback programme.
With the hunger for environmental investing continuing to grow, it should be no surprise that specialist manager Impax Asset Management (IPX:AIM) has performed well this year.
In the year to September, assets rose by 84% to £37.2 billion driven by record net inflows of £10.7 billion and an outstanding performance from its core ESG strategies.
Following COP26 and the commitment by financial firms worldwide to invest greater sums in ESG assets, the wave shows no sign of slowing.
£200 million to £1 billion market cap
UK investors remained blocked from cryptocurrency ETFs of the sort that got US investors in a frenzy in 2021, so they have focused on picks and shovels operators like bitcoin miner Argo Blockchain (ARB) in their wisdom.
The stock seems to have become decoupled from the underlying bitcoin price through 2021, but correlation in the early part of the year saw share price gains hit close on 500%, although the stock has since failed to hold on to those peaks.
Shares in car retailers Lookers (LOOK), Vertu Motors (VTU:AIM) and Marshall Motor (MMH:AIM) zipped higher in 2021 as they rode an upgrade cycle fuelled by the industry’s unusual supply and demand dynamics.
The release of pent-up consumer demand post-lockdown combined with the impact of the global semiconductor shortage on new car production drove up second hand vehicle prices and boosted sector-wide profit margins.
Towards the end of the year, predator turned prey when deal-hungry dealership Marshall Motor recommended a £323 million takeover by Constellation Automotive, the owner of online car marketplace Cinch as well as Webuyanycar and BCA Marketplace.
Shares in non-invasive cancer diagnostics company Angle (AGL:AIM) had a terrific year, driven by a stream of positive news around the commercialisation of its Parsortix cell separation system which isolates circulating tumour cells from a patient’s blood.
In June the company raised £20 million to accelerate further applications for Parsortix and exploit first mover advantage. The company expects to receive FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval during the current quarter.
Computer-based drug discovery platform specialist E-therapeutics (ETX:AIM) has seen its shares rise 177% this year reflecting the progress the firm has made in developing its proprietary RNAi tool used to study gene functions.
E-therapeutics believes it has developed one of the best datasets in liver biology allowing companies to quickly assess the effectiveness of drug candidates. The firm successfully raised £22.5 million in June to expand the disease-agnostic drug discovery platform’s capabilities.
AIM-quoted 88 Energy (88E:AIM) has been a beneficiary of both strong commodity prices and strategic progress with its Alaskan oil and gas assets in 2021. The shares traded above 4p amid positive news on its Merlin-1 well at the end of March and while they are now well below those highs, the stock price has still risen by 200% this year.
Increased focus on the need to transition away from polluting fuels, operational progress, and strong natural gas prices have lifted energy transition investor Kistos (KIST:AIM) this year. The Q10-A natural gas field, acquired in early summer, uses solar and wind to power operations on site, keeping carbon emissions low.
£20 million to £200 million market cap
What started 2021 as a bespoke electronics and networks kit minnow, GSTechnologies (GST:AIM) ends the year a different beast.
Having raised around £2.6 million from investors this year it has focused on blockchain-enabled digital payments, or what the company has called ‘neobanking business models and monetisation strategies’.
This included the acquisition of foreign exchange payments play Angra announced in October, sending the stock surging for the second time in 12 months.
The astounding share price performance for Quantum Blockchain Technologies’ (QBT:AIM) is due to the completion of the first phase of its efforts to find faster and more energy-efficient ways to mine cryptocurrency.
Aberdeen Asset Management founder Martin Gilbert’s AssetCo (ASTO:AIM) is targeting strategic acquisitions of undervalued asset and wealth management businesses.
To date AssetCo has made three acquisitions. These span thematic ETF provider Rize, financial adviser technology and investment solutions platform Parmenion and specialist fund manager Saracen.
Moving forward the real opportunity is that Gilbert can replicate his previous success by leveraging his extensive network of contacts and breadth of experience.
Utah-focused Zephyr Energy (ZPHR:AIM) has seen its fortunes transformed by drilling success on its natural gas assets in the Paradox basin.
Formerly Rose Petroleum, a name under which it had a decidedly mixed track record, the company’s 757% advance this year has come from a low base and reflects both its progress in Utah and its acquisition of other non-operated US assets which have added production and cash flow to the portfolio.
Fintech tiddler Universe Group (UNG:AIM), which designs and manages payment systems for thousands of retail websites, is something of an outlier in this year’s table.
Having gone nowhere since January, the shares popped in mid-November on news of a major contract, then a week later they sky-rocketed after the company revealed it had agreed a 12p per share bid from a US private equity firm, almost times three the price of a year ago.