The equity markets have already shown themselves to be almost as unpredictable in January 2012 as they were for much of last year. Some of the standout ETFs from the month of January were among the most disappointing names in 2011. The quick start has helped investors to recapture some of last year's losses, but a long and rocky road is waiting. (For related reading, see An Inside Look At ETF Construction.)

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Cashing in on Commodities
After pulling back sharply from an epic run which peaked in the spring of 2011, silver is beginning to regain its swagger. The iShares Silver Trust (ARCA:SLV) has regained some of the momentum that powered this ETF up the charts in 2010. Shares of SLV have rallied 21.6% year-to-date.

SLV is still a far cry from its 52-week high of $48.35 from late April of last year. However, this ETF has a couple of factors going for it at the moment. A weaker dollar and rising oil prices have both been welcomed developments for silver investors in recent trading sessions. The potential for low interest rates for the next couple of years is also a trend that this precious metal can continue to benefit from.

Another commodity-focused ETF that had a big month of January is the Market Vectors Steel ETF (ARCA:SLX). After a dismal showing in 2011, this fund snapped back to life during the month, as steelmakers such as Nucor (NYSE:NUE) predict a pickup in demand for steel from automakers and heavy equipment makers in the coming months. Shares of SLX are up 19.07% on the year. (For related reading, see The 5 Best Performing Gold ETFs.)

Breaking Through the Clouds
Speaking of ETFs that had a rough go of it in 2011, the Guggenheim Solar (ARCA:TAN) was one of the worst performers as it turned in a loss of 66.5% last year for shareholders. It may be too soon for investors to hope for a sustained V-shaped recovery, but shares of TAN have surged 25.51% since the beginning of this year.

This ETF has been retracing its prior losses as installations in Germany and the U.K. have been ticking upwards. The fund is also positioned to rally, should China follow through on plans to double its solar capacity in 2012.

Another ETF that has been on fire during the month of January is the SPDR S&P Biotech ETF (ARCA:XBI). XBI shares have jumped 18.8% so far in 2011. The fund has benefited from the prospects of an increase in M&A activity similar to the agreement reached last week by Amgen (Nasdaq:AMGN) to acquire Micromet (Nasdaq:MITI) for $1.16 billion.

The Bottom Line
The ETF arena has seen some unlikely stars emerge in the early weeks of 2012. Some of these funds were left for dead last year, but have experienced strong bounces off of the bottom. All four of these funds operate in volatile sectors, but with the exception of SLV, the notion that an investor is purchasing a basket of stocks will at least eliminate single company risk. (For more, see How To Pick The Best ETF.)

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At the time of writing, Billy Fisher did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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