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Executive Summary

Focused on the Long Term, Opportunistic in the Near Term

By Roger S. Conrad on Jul. 12, 2015

The bull market’s seventh year is off to a less-than-rousing start for income investors, with the Alerian MLP Index down 11.5 percent and the Dow Jones Utilities Average down 6.5 percent.

Even shares of American Water Works (NYSE: AWK), the largest US water utility, have given up 4.7 percent of their value in 2015. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 has gained only 0.7 percent this year.

In our coverage universe, the S&P Telecommunication Services Index has emerged as the big winner, eking out a 2.3 percent total return.

This weakness in US equities reflects an uncertain macroeconomic environment that’s clouded by China’s slowing growth and the Greek sovereign-debt crisis. A muddy outlook for US economic growth hasn’t helped matters.

Speculation about when and to what extent the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates has heightened volatility in the stock market. Meanwhile, oil prices appear poised for another downdraft, now that we’ve passed the peak of the summer driving season.

Over the past six years, best-in-class utility stocks have followed market corrections with big-time gains. We expect more of the same once the market settles down, especially if our favorites post solid second-quarter results.

Nevertheless, investors have ample cause for caution. The Dow Jones Utilities Average’s performance this year bears an eerie resemblance to 1987, the last time the sector faltered badly after a winning January. And another breakdown in oil prices, an interest rate hike and/or more weakness in China could roil equity markets further.

My midyear strategy balances a long-term focus on quality and value with short-term opportunism: By cashing out of outperformers with limited upside, we can stockpile some dry powder to deploy in a correction.

We’ve sold about half a dozen Portfolio holdings since mid-2014, booking sizable gains on most. This month, we’re liquidating our position in Conservative Income Portfolio holding ONE Gas (NYSE: OGS) for a 38.1 percent profit. Although the gas utility boasts a solid dividend, the stock trades at 21 times earnings—a lofty valuation that doesn’t reflect emerging questions about future growth.

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