While the risks can be large, sometimes the biggest paydays on Wall Street come from making a contrarian bet on the most hated sector on the planet. This was never truer than during 2012.

The housing sector, which brought the financial system to its knees in 2008 and continued to be an albatross around the middle class for the next three years, was the hottest trade this year as consumer confidence improved and as the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low. The central bank even went so far as to purchase mortgage-backed securities.