There’s nothing like a convincing rally to silence bears. And utilities are still the best- performing sector this year, with the S&P 500 Utilities Index beating the S&P 500 by better than a 2-to-1 margin.
Our three Conrad’s Utility Investor Portfolios—Aggressive Income, Conservative Income and Top 10 DRIPs--have fared well, adding to solid 2013 gains. The biggest winners have been companies that analysts shunned earlier in the year; for example, formerly out of favor Exelon Corp (NYSE: EXC) has returned almost 40 percent.
Outperformance, however, should never be taken for granted. Even in sectors as stable as essential services, the high and mighty frequently change places with the outcasts.
This year is shaping up as a big one for utility mergers. The market value of companies in our Utility Report Card that have announced deals has already reached $237 billion. And Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, BRK.B) has yet to pull the trigger. (See Buffett Still Eyeing Utilities.)
Thus far, a handful of giants account for virtually all the volume. That includes Aggressive Income Portfolio holding Exelon Corp’s (NYSE: EXC) all-cash bid for Pepco Holdings (NYSE: POM).
The new company immediately gains major synergies in the Mid-Atlantic region, providing financial support for its nuclear power plants in wholesale markets.
I never speculate on takeover stocks that can’t make it on their own--a bias that held me out of Pepco this year. But in the long run, Exelon shareholders will benefit the most from this deal, thanks to a low purchase price and numerous opportunities to upgrade underperforming regulated assets.
As for finding strong companies with takeover appeal, the key is business performance.
As a long-time shareholder of Berkshire as well as many utilities, I’m encouraged. I’m skeptical of some of the names being floated as MidAmerican’s next potential targets. But the feature article highlights several companies that fit the mold of NV Energy and PacifiCorp, which Berkshire bought in March 2006 from the former ScottishPower.
MidAmerican earned $1.47 billion in 2013 as one of Berkshire’s “Powerhouse Five” non-insurance businesses. That was approximately 7.5 percent of the company’s overall profit, a share that will rise to around 10 percent in 2014, thanks to a full year of owning NV Energy.
Even after the next acquisition, electric utility assets will be less significant to Berkshire’s fortunes than insurance, or even railroads (20 percent of profits). But there are two clear takeaways from Mr. Buffett’s continuing interest in the power sector.
First, MidAmerican is likely to buy another utility this year, handing investors windfall gains. Second, there are regulated electricity assets that still meet the criteria of the world’s most successful value investor.
The Bull Market turns 5 years old this weekend. That’s the average age most rallies have come apart, including the previous decade’s run that ended with the 2008 crash.
Happily, there’s plenty of differences between now and then. Consumers, businesses and even governments are far less leveraged. The global economy isn’t close to overheating. The US dollar is the hot commodity. And there’s still a wall of worry to climb, judging from the popularity of bear arguments on almost any subject.
It's undeniable, however, that real values are harder to come by. That's especially true for dividend-paying stocks. And though still nowhere close to 2007 levels, investors’ appetite for risk has grown. That includes piling into popular fare that have already scored big gains, as well as piling on with short sales of battered stocks.
In recent months, we’ve scored hefty profits in several unloved Aggressive Income Portfolio holdings that squeezed heavy short interest by posting better-than-expected results. That includes ENEL SPA (Italy: ENEL, OTC: ENLAY), which I’m taking a roughly 60 percent profit on in 7 months.
Not since 1987 have utility stocks failed to follow up a positive January with full year gains.
To a large extent, January’s move can be chalked up to a mood swing. A month ago, the emerging consensus was utility stocks were poor investments, doomed to suffer from rising interest rates, falling sales due to solar adoption and ultimately a revolt of regulators and customers.
The sudden retreat of emerging markets and their currencies has now taken that narrative off the front page. Rather, utilities are touted as a “hedge” against a repeat of the global market meltdown of 1997-98.
The investment media love a great story told from 30,000 feet. And it’s true that utility stocks were big winners during that crisis, even as the rest of the market cracked.
Current market action, however, is still nothing close to another 1997-98. In fact, there are already some signs of recovery from the recent damage, including the apparently stabilizing Australian dollar. As a result, by this time next month, investors are just as likely to be mesmerized by an altogether different “big story.”
That’s why I’m far more impressed by the strong fourth-quarter results posted by the utilities in my coverage universe..
Where January leads, the rest of the year follows: That Wall Street adage has generally held up for most stocks over the years.
But it definitely has not for utilities—they’ve received a false signal 10 times in the past 30 years.
The keys to 2014 are ensuring the health and growth of the stocks you own, and buying selected bargains. These appear when investors let emotions get the better of them, or follow strategies based on false premises.
The most deadly conventional wisdom last year is still very much in play now: Selling utilities and other dividend-paying stocks for fear of rising interest rates.
As it turned out, rates did rise a lot in 2013, with the 10-year US Treasury note yield soaring more than 70 percent. But the Dow Jones Utility Average, Alerian MLP Index and S&P Telecom Service Index all finished 2013 with double-digit total returns.
That’s exactly what they did in 2009, the last time the 10-year Treasury note yield rose by better than 70 percent. In fact, the trio’s worst year by far since 1984 was 2008, a year of sharply falling interest rates.
Barring a real financial earthquake, this will be the ninth year of rising interest rates since 1992.
2013 will also be the eighth of those nine that utilities and other dividend paying stocks finished in the black. The only exception was 1994, when deregulation fears upended electricity and communications.
Utilities also rose eight years when rates fell. All their biggest declines, however, were during years of falling interest rates, particularly 2008.
Utility stock prices ultimately reflect the health of underlying companies. Stocks of financially healthy companies with growing dividends always move higher. But when an economic calamity brings interest rates lower quickly, they can drop in a hurry.
It’s been barely two weeks since Washington avoided the first federal government default, at least since the Articles of Confederation were in force. The autumn rally in stocks, however, actually began during the heat of the crisis.
The trigger was long overdue recognition the Federal Reserve isn’t going to abandon loose money until the economy is strong enough to handle it. All the “taper” talk that clogged the airwaves for months proved to be meaningless blather.
That’s hardly the first time conventional wisdom has proven disastrously wrong for the investors who bet on it.
The silver lining is resulting volatility was a solid opportunity to buy good stocks cheap. And thanks to that, we’ve already seen sizeable gains for the Conrad’s Utility Investor Model Portfolios, though they’ve only been around three months.
Utility stocks have posted fourth-quarter gains 36 times since 1969. But last year the Dow Jones Utility Average dropped almost 4 percent, virtually all of it during the first two weeks of November.
As we enter the fourth quarter of 2013, a number of trends and developments have investors flashing back to the final three months of last year.
The government is again in budget disarray and the deadline for default is fast approaching. The US economy is still plodding, with second quarter GDP growth of 2.5 percent. The gap between rich and poor nations in the eurozone continues to grow. And softer Asian growth is still shaking up global natural-resource markets.
But there are differences from last year.
For one thing, the stocks are cheaper. Despite what’s shaping up as a solid year for business, conventional wisdom since late April has held that dividend-paying stocks are bond substitutes—and that a change in Federal Reserve policy to “tapering” is about to drive them off a cliff.
My feature article presents more evidence that the bearish thesis about utilities' sensitivity to interest rates is more sensationalism than sense. But the more important question is, what if great companies sold off enough to make them bargains again?
The weight of evidence in this month’s Utility Report Card indicates that real bargains have emerged, three of which I am adding to my Conservative Income Portfolio.
August was a down month for utilities and other essential services companies—likewise the broad stock market. That continues a trend beginning in late April, when fears first stirred of an end to Federal Reserve easing.
Since then, the Fed has not changed policy. But the markets have acted as though much higher interest rates are a done deal. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury Note yield has nearly doubled. And expectations are we’ll see it at 4 to 5 percent, as the precursor to a dramatic, across the board rise in rates.
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