Now more than ever, it’s a stock picker’s market for utilities and essential services.
Last month, the Dow Jones Utility Average basically ran in place. But top-performer AES Corp (NYSE: AES) returned 10 percent, while the biggest loser Public Service Enterprise Group (NYSE: PEG) shed 5 percent.
The difference maker was investor expectations. AES beat a relatively low bar with third quarter earnings and updated guidance. Public Service failed a somewhat higher one, despite another solid performance at its core New Jersey utility.
AES is also a leading global adopter of renewable energy technology, including battery storage. And its 90 percent two-year total return—70 points better than the DJUA—was in large part simply closing the gap with sector leaders like NextEra Energy (NYSE: NEE).
It was another strong quarter for the nearly 200 essential service companies in our Utility Report Card coverage universe. Of the 95 percent or so reporting so far, only a handful of small telecoms failed to demonstrate underlying business strength.
My number one rule in any environment is to avoid stocks and bonds of companies with weakening underlying businesses. If things are going poorly now, how bad will they get when the economy really slows and/or the cost of capital rises?
Aggressive Hoding Suburban Propane Partners (NYSE: SPH) has yet to report its fiscal fourth quarter. But each of the 38 other CUI Portfolio recommendations reported numbers that either met or beat management’s previous guidance.
Wall Street consensus projects utility sector earnings growth will reach 6 percent in 2020. That’s triple this year’s anticipated 2 percent.
Accelerating sector growth is in marked contrast to diminished expectations for most industries. But even more impressive is how well insulated the primary drivers are from the macro environment.
For example, many companies will get a boost because they no longer have to issue equity to compensate for lower cash flow due to reduced tax pass throughs. They’ll get another lift from the massive decline in corporate borrowing rates since the start of 2019.
Utility stocks set another series of records last month. As a result, price/earnings multiples are again moving toward the stratosphere. Meanwhile, dividend yields are scraping lows last seen immediately prior to the big declines of 2001-02 and 2008-09.
Utility stocks’ key attraction has always been generous dividends. Yet nearly half the companies tracked in our Utility Report Card yield less than 3 percent, and 20 pay less than 2 percent.
Conversely, less than 10 have dividends as high as 8 percent. And most of those should be avoided for safety’s sake.
I’m happy to say it’s still possible to dig safe, high yields from this increasingly rocky ground. That’s the subject of our Feature article.
The Dow Jones Utility Average hit an all-time high in late June, backed off and is rallying again. The price-weighted index now sells for nearly 22 times trailing 12-months earnings and yields barely 3 percent.
The last time utilities yielded this little was just before the 2007-09 bear market. The only time since the early 1960s the P/E was this high was at the end of 2000, before a nearly 60 percent crash in the wake of Enron’s collapse.
Utility sector business fundamentals have rarely if ever been more secure. That’s the clear message from the break down of my five-part Quality Grade system, which I present in the Utility Report Card. The latest shot in the arm is a steep drop in essential service companies’ borrowing costs.
Buy American, buy safety and buy yield: Those are three powerful upside drivers for utility stocks this spring, as major sector averages have made one new high after another.
Investors who choose to run with the bulls now, however, should have an extra ounce of caution. Not only are utility stock valuations at levels we haven’t seen since late 2000.
But as I point out in the Feature article, much of the buying power behind the rise doesn’t actually stem from decisions made by individual investors or even money managers. It’s the result of buy signals for algorithms that control vast and growing pools of “passively managed” money.
The fear the US/China trade deal might not get done is again roiling the global stock market. So far, however, selling hasn’t done enough to budge top quality utility stocks from their still historically high valuations.
High prices alone never kill bull markets. But it’s all too easy to disappoint the lofty investor expectations they represent. And risk is never higher than when companies are reporting quarterly earnings and issuing guidance.
This month’s Utility Report Card highlights my analysis of results for the roughly two-thirds of our coverage universe that’s responded to date. The really good news is that so far Portfolio recommendations are sticking to calendar year 2019 guidance, even in cases where weather and non-recurring events have depressed quarterly bottom lines.
2019 has started out with a bang for utilities and essential services stocks. The Dow Jones Utility Average’s 10.2 percent first quarter return was one of its best showings in history. And the 38 stocks in our Conservative Holdings, Aggressive Holdings and Top 10 DRIPS are higher by 15 percent.
This positive momentum is certainly a welcome change from lackluster 2018, and particularly the vicious fourth quarter selloff. But it also brings reasons for investors to be wary.
First, really big openings followed by fantastic finishes are extremely rare for utilities, the most recent being in 2000. Typically, stock prices level off in the following months. I’m encouraged that our Portfolio gains were more driven by positive business developments at individual holdings than the sector surge. But with the DJUA marking a new all-time high last month, utility valuations are back in the stratosphere.
From all indications, most Utility Report Card companies should report strong first quarter earnings and guidance updates in the coming weeks. But catalysts for further upside now face a high bar. It’s also noteworthy that more than a few best in class names lagged in the first quarter, despite very strong business performance.
As I pointed out in the March 21 Income Insights “The Fed Turns a Page,” the Federal Reserve’s decision to terminate its monetary tightening cycle carries a huge positive for capital intensive companies like utilities: A big drop in borrowing costs that’s provided a fresh opportunity to lock in cheap, long-term financing. This month’s Utility Report Card comments highlight this advantage, as well as analysis of other Quality Grade criteria.
There are only a few weeks left in first quarter 2019. And still a handful of Utility Report Card coverage universe companies haven’t reported calendar fourth quarter numbers and guidance.
Unfortunately, tardy filings are par for the course this time of year, when most companies make full-on annual reports rather than quarterly updates. But there’s already been plenty revealed that has critical implications for investors during the rest of 2019.
This month’s Report Card has the particulars for almost all of the companies that didn’t report in time for the February issue. Putting together everything we’ve learned so far, the most important takeaway is, to a company, our Portfolio recommendations didn’t disappoint.
In fact, Aggressive Holding Hannon Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure Capital (NYSE: HASI) justified our faith holding onto it over the past year by returning to dividend growth. That news pushed its shares to a new all-time high this month. And as the “Portfolio Holdings Trading Above Target” table in the Portfolio Article shows, it’s hardly alone in making a run.
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Roger's current take and vital statistics on more than 200 essential-services stocks.