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Utilities: A Stock-Picker’s Game in 2017

By Roger S. Conrad on Mar. 12, 2017
Shares of utilities and other essential-service companies have slipped from the highs hit earlier this month, reducing the number of Portfolio holdings that trade above our value-based buy targets to 14. Whether this wavering marks the start of another leg down for the Dow Jones Utility Average remains to be seen. However, the recent rally creates a high bar of expectations and increases the risk that investors will view any hiccup as an excuse to take profits. This month’s feature article highlights some of the macro catalysts that could send utility stocks lower. The current environment favors stock-picking over broad-based exposure, a point underscored by the widening discrepancy between the top and bottom performers in the utility sector. Although the Dow Jones Utility Average posted a total return of 18.2 percent last year, the index’s top performer beat the worst by 39 percentage points. This performance gap stands at 20 percentage points this year, despite the Dow Jones Utility Average gaining 5.4 percent. A retrenchment to normal valuations would widen this range. At this point, only 37 stocks tracked in our 205-company Utility Report Card trade below our buy targets. In fact, several dozen best-in-class names that earn A or B Quality Grades in our proprietary system trade at levels where investors should consider taking a partial profit off the table.  

Stay Focused

By Roger S. Conrad on Feb. 13, 2017
The outlook for interest rates and uncertainties surrounding the Trump administration’s policies likely top most investors’ list of concerns in early 2017. However, investors shouldn’t take their eye off their portfolio holdings’ underlying businesses and future growth prospects. Despite the conventional wisdom that rising interest rates are bad news for utility stocks, the Dow Jones Utility Average has gained more than 20 percent since the Federal Reserve began increasing the benchmark rate in December 2015. These returns reflect the upward drift in the broader market and delivering on guidance for earnings and dividend growth. Strong fourth-quarter results and company-specific developments—not the latest tweet from President Donald Trump—are behind NextEra Energy Partners LP’s (NYSE: NEP) strong returns in the new year. Meanwhile, the recent selloff in Dominion Resources’ (NYSE: D) stock reflects a combination of high expectations and an unexpected revision to the company’s 2017 guidance, not the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. Nowhere in our coverage universe are hopes higher and easier to dash than in names that traders have bid up as potential takeover targets.

The Election is Over: Focus on Fundamentals, Not Politics

By Roger S. Conrad on Jan. 10, 2017
Call it a quadrennial ritual: In the first weeks after the US presidential election, investors scramble to find the trades that will work best under the incoming administration. Invariably, they forget that US government policies are just one of many factors that can influence corporate earnings and investment returns. Eight years ago, the conventional wisdom assumed that the Obama administration would be toxic for the stock market, especially the health care, financial and energy sectors. With only a few weeks left in Obama’s second term, the S&P 500 is up 210 percent, with the health care and financial sectors outperforming. US oil and gas production also reached new heights under Obama’s watch. Conversely, despite rising adoption of renewable energy, Guggenheim Solar (NYSE: TAN)—an exchange-traded fund that offers one-stop exposure to solar-power stocks—burned up almost 80 percent of its value during Obama’s terms in office. Like Obama in 2009, President-elect Donald Trump will take office with his party in control of Congress, creating the potential for the new administration to deliver on promises to cut taxes, reduce regulation and promote infrastructure investment. The past eight years reinforce that Republicans may not accomplish everything they set out to do.

Resolution for 2017: Don’t Be Afraid to Buy Low

By Roger S. Conrad on Dec. 11, 2016
Buying a stock when others are selling can be just as challenging psychologically as taking a profit on an investment that seems to rally every day. However, these incremental moves can help to juice your portfolio’s returns during periods of volatility. Paying close attention to valuation worked well for us in 2016 and will again in 2017, when we’ll learn the extent to which an expansionary fiscal policy can prolong the bull market and accelerate economic growth. This month’s feature article highlights 10 trends that could drive returns for the more than 200 essential-service stocks in our coverage universe.  

The Correction Continues, But Don’t Blame the Election

By Roger S. Conrad on Nov. 16, 2016
The S&P 500 Utilities Index has tumbled in the wake of the 2016 election, as the conventional wisdom holds that the results were bad for utility stocks. Rising interest rates and the prospect of improved economic growth if the Trump administration delivers on its promised fiscal stimulus have given portfolio managers an excuse to rotate out of utility stocks and into cyclical fare. Unsustainably high valuations made this decision all the easier. Conrad’s Utility Investor subscribers who followed our lead over the summer and took partial profits on their big winners and added exposure to ProShares UltraShort Utilities (NYSE: SDP) should be doing reasonably well, all things considered. This exchange-traded fund, which delivers two times the Dow Jones US Utilities Index’s inverse daily performance, has rallied by about 25 percent—and we see the potential for more upside. However, the most important point to take away from this issue of Conrad’s Utility Investor is that the underlying business conditions for our favorite utilities haven’t changed. The sector remains in excellent financial shape and has its best growth prospects in decades. Unfortunately, valuations remain frothy. Election 2016 has created far more opportunity than risks for best-in-class utilities. But potential regulatory tailwinds are only one of the many factors that will drive returns going forward.  

Correction in Progress: Stick to the Plan

By Roger S. Conrad on Oct. 11, 2016
For just the 18th time since the last World War, the S&P 500 Utilities Index has suffered a pullback of more than 10 percent from its previous high. Excluding dividends, these past swoons have averaged a 23 percent decline over a period of about 14 months. Our base case calls for further weakness in utility stocks, as the risk-reward balance remains skewed to the downside. Over the past several months, we’ve systematically reduced our exposure to names we wouldn’t feel comfortable holding in an economic downturn and taken partial profits on some of our big winners—many of which have pulled back 15 percent to 20 percent since early July. At the same time, our position in ProShares UltraShort Utilities (NYSE: SDP), an exchange-traded fund designed to deliver two times the Dow Jones US Utilities Index’s inverse daily performance, has gained about 18 percent since early July. We’ve also assembled a shopping list with dream prices for our favorite stocks. Although we remain committed to buying and holding high-quality stocks for the long haul, our recent moves have positioned us to profit from whatever lies ahead.  

Down, But Still Expensive

By Roger S. Conrad on Sep. 12, 2016
Utility stocks’ summer swoon picked up steam, with the Dow Jones Utilities Average down more than 9 percent from its high in early July. The financial infotainment industry has blamed this pullback on speculation that the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates this fall. In reality, the run-up in utility stocks to record valuations set the stage for momentum-seeking investors to use any excuse as an opportunity to take profits. Expect to hear a lot more about US monetary policy and its implications for utility stocks if this correction deepens in coming weeks. But bear in mind that weakness in the US economy likely will prevent the Federal Reserve from further tightening this year and that market history reveals scant correlation between utility stocks and the direction of interest rates. Consider that when the Federal Reserve hiked the benchmark interest rate by 425 basis points between June 2004 and June 2006, the Dow Jones Utilities Average generated a total return of more than 60 percent—almost four times the gain posted by the S&P 500. Concerns about rising interest rates may give investors an excuse to sell utility stocks in the near term, but frothy valuations not seen since the 1960s will be the real cause. At these levels, momentum-seeking investors tend to have itchy trigger fingers. Against this backdrop, we continue to err on the side of conservatism and bide our time for utility and telecom valuations to revert to the mean, at which point will look to deploy the dry powder we’ve accumulated by exiting riskier positions and taking partial profits on big winners.

Another Strong Earnings Season

By Roger S. Conrad on Aug. 14, 2016
Second-quarter earnings are in for most of the more than 200 essential-service companies in our coverage universe. You can find our analysis of these results in this month’s update to the Utility Report Card. One quarter’s results won’t make or break most companies, but this earnings season was of particular importance for two reasons. By most valuation metrics, utility stocks trade at levels not seen the early 1960s; this earnings season provided a reality check to see if the companies’ underlying fundamentals lived up to the market’s lofty expectations. Growth has also stalled out in some industries and economies this year. The past quarter’s earnings and management teams’ outlooks for the remainder of the year provide an early test of how vulnerable companies could be in a bear market or recession. The vast majority of the names that we cover continue to deliver the goods as businesses, with most meeting or exceeding their guidance. Although some companies earned higher buy targets and we feel more comfortable with some names that had landed in our doghouse, many of the stocks in our Utility Report Card trade at unsustainably high valuations. At these levels, the risk of a pullback remains elevated.

Top of the Charts

By Roger S. Conrad on Jul. 10, 2016
At the midway point of 2016, the utility and telecom sectors have emerged as the top performers in the S&P 500, delivering total returns of more than 20 percent. Given the make-up of our model Portfolios, we’re not complaining. Our Conservative Income Portfolio holdings have rallied an average of about 25 percent this year, while the names on our Top 10 DRIPs list have gained an average of almost 30 percent. The Aggressive Income Portfolio has posted an average total return of about 15 percent, while the spotlighted stocks from each issue have gained an average of 14 percent. Although we remain confident in our holdings’ underlying businesses and growth prospects, stretched valuations suggest that the recent momentum-driven gains won’t last. Historically, the risk of a pullback is elevated whenever the Dow Jones Utilities Average trades at more than 20 times earnings and yields less than 3 percent—a cause for caution. We continue to emphasize the importance of taking advantage of this rally to reduce risk, rebalance your portfolio and take some profits off the table in big winners. This dry powder will come in handy during the inevitable pullback.  

A High Bar of Expectations

By Roger S. Conrad on Jun. 12, 2016
The Dow Jones Utilities Average finished the week at a record high and the index’s price-to-earnings ratio has blown out to levels last seen in early 2008. Although this froth in the market increases the bar of expectations for utility stocks and heightens the risk of a pullback, our favorite utilities enjoy ready access to low-cost capital and ample opportunity to grow their rate base through investments in renewable energy, pipelines and gas-fired power plants. The recent momentum driving utility stocks higher reflects concerns about the US economy and the market’s growing realization that the Federal Reserve will struggle to raise interest rates this year. In this environment, investors gravitate toward utilities’ resilient cash flow and above-average dividend yields. Whereas reliable earnings are enduring features of regulated utilities, the influx of capital driving these stocks to new highs rests on something far more fickle: investor sentiment. When momentum investors find an excuse to take profits off the table, the sector will take a hit, regardless of underlying fundamentals. In this environment, investors should take advantage of the rally to exit riskier names, take some profits off the table in their winners (14 Portfolio holdings trade above our buy targets) and assemble a shopping list of stocks to buy when the inevitable pullback occurs.



Roger S. Conrad needs no introduction to individual and professional investors, many of whom have profited from his decades of experience uncovering the best dividend-paying stocks for accumulating sustainable wealth. Roger b