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Why 2015 could bring the surprising return of risk

Something funny happened on the way to another huge year for stocks.

With just a week and a half left in 2014, the S&P 500 is up 12 percent, besting nearly everyone's expectations. Still, the best-performing sectors haven't been cyclical stocks that generally rise when the broader market is soaring and the economy is growing.

Instead, health care and utilities stocks have led the way, with 27 percent and 23 percent gains for those sectors, respectively.

Now, the big question is whether that trend will turn around in 2015—setting the stage for a more traditional bull market led by the sort of cyclical stocks that tend to lead in good times and lag in bad.

Over the past year, "people were in search of yield, and that really was the personality of the rally in 2014," said Jim Iuorio of TJM Institutional Services. "What I want to see is things further out the risk spectrum start to rally, and if that's the case, that's when I'll think that we're on a risk-on mode."

BlackRock's Rosenberg: Stocks will beat bonds in 2015

To Jonathan Golub, RBC's chief U.S. market strategist, the key issue is that stocks have surged—even as economic growth has been lackluster.

"The real question is, will the economy grow fast enough to support more economically sensitive cyclical names? This is the ninth year in a row where GDP grew under 3 percent," he pointed out.

In 2015, economists expect growth to finally surpass 3 percent, but "that's been the expectation for each of those nine years, and we haven't seen it," Golub said. "My gut tells me that the economists will prove to be a little bit more optimistic once against."

For that reason, the analyst is looking for the S&P to return 12 to 15 percent, including dividends, once again. However, he says the rally will likely be led by a mix of cyclical and non-cyclical sectors. Specifically, the strategist favors technology and health care stocks, and is less optimistic about industrials.

Go long on industrials

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Conversely, Gina Martin Adams of Wells Fargo recently initiated an "overweight" recommendation on the industrial sector, because she believes that the sector is attractively valued, and is set to enjoy earnings growth.

However, in a Wednesday note explaining her call, Adams acknowledged that the response to her recommendation "has been lukewarm at best, as investors seem to fear lower oil prices and weaker economic prospects overseas."

Yet the market seems to have a tendency to defy consensus expectations. For instance, few expected that utilities would outperform in 2014, because most believed deeply interest rates were set to rise. They fell sharply instead, making high-dividend utilities names look like a bargain.

Perhaps 2015, then, will be the year that the market defies the expectations of those who say that growth will remain stagnant.

"2015 will be a year that favors cyclical stocks over the defensive names as the economy continues to strengthen," predicted Jeffrey Saut of Raymond James.

"I believe we are at the stage of the secular bull market where everything is going to work," he said.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg.

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