Will Netflix Stock Be the S&P 500's Top Gainer in 2017?

By Rick Munarriz Markets Fool.com

Image source: Netflix.

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There's been some big gains to be had by owningNetflix (NASDAQ: NFLX)in odd-numbered years, and 2017 is off to a strong start. Shares of the top dog in premium video streaming have risen 12% so far this young year, one of just 21 S&P 500 stocks with double-digit percentage returns year to date.

Netflix is used to leading the way among the 500 companies that make up the popular stock index. Netflix was the biggest gainer in 2013, soaring 298%. The stock more than tripled after the dot-com darling's once-criticized plan to spin off its streaming platform as a standalone paid service took off. After a step back in 2014, the stock rose 134% in 2015, enough to lead the other 499 S&P 500 components in an otherwise ho-hum year.

Netflix stock has come through with monster gains in 2013 and 2015, enough to lead the pack among S&P 500 components. It's only natural to wonder if the video streaming behemoth with 98.3 million subscribers can go for a "three-peat" performance in 2017.

Back to the future

Odd years haven't always been golden for Netflix shareholders. The stock took a brutal 61% hit in 2011 as the Qwikster fiasco played out. It would have to wait until 2013 for a rebound performance.

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A lot can still go wrong this year despite its blazing start after a blowout holiday quarter. After tacking on 19 million net new subscribers in 2016 -- including more than 7 million in just the last three months -- a deeply penetrated domestic market and competitive challenges overseas could slow its historically heady growth.

There were 23.9 million shares of Netflix sold short by year's end, a big number in general but actually the lowest short interest in the stock in more than a year. This makes a short squeeze -- the naysayer-busting maneuver that has boosted the stock in the past -- less likely. However, there are still several reasons for optimism.

Netflix is at the top of its game, and it gained a record number of new subscribers in a year in which it boosted its monthly rate by as much as 25% for its most tenured members. It's earmarking $6 billion in content for 2017, something that will once again distance itself from the competition.

This isn't the same fragile Netflix that buckled in 2011 or even the one that saw its stock take a step back after its 2014 gap year. This is a stronger Netflix than the one that squeezed out modest gains in 2014 and 2016 between its index-leading romps. Momentum remains in its corner, and as long as the momentum remains, the stock should continue to be one of the lead huskies in Mr. Market's sled race through what promises to be a wild 2017.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.