From Roger S. Conrad
An Open Letter on
Congratulations and welcome!
By opening this letter you’re already separating yourself from the herd who will eventually outlive their investment assets. That’s more than 60% of Americans, according to a recent study by giant accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP.
E&Y also found the average person that’s seven years from retirement will be forced by diminished portfolios to gut their standard of living by 37 percent. That includes more than a few investors who now boast nest eggs of $1 million or more.
Some will fail simply because they’re unable to curb a lifetime of high living habits. But even those who do cut back are at risk to running out of money, as they settle for the mediocre returns currently offered by such “prudent saver” investments as annuities, bank savings and “target” retirement accounts peddled by their advisors.
Don’t look to bonds for a solution. Prospective returns are the lowest in decades, while risk to your principal from inflation and eventually another recession is the highest in decades.
Yet Vanguard’s popular Target Retirement 2030 Fund insists on investing more than 32% of shareholders’ money in bonds. Target 2025 recently had almost 40% in bonds. Target 2015, presumably for investors who’ve been retired the past five years, had more than 60% percent in bonds!
I don’t mean to pick on Vanguard. In fact, I’m a great admirer of the late John C. Bogle’s low fees approach and the way it’s revolutionized the business. The Target funds have certainly been a marketing success, with almost $16 billion in Target 2015 assets alone.
But it’s hard to see how a retiree is going to survive on Target 2015’s recent yield of less than 2.5%, paid just once a year. Neither has this fund’s 5.85% annualized five-year return at last count done much to build retirement savings. A basket of solid utilities would have generated twice the return and income. The S&P 500 Index itself earned 12.8 percent a year.
Target 2015 +164%
Dow Jones Utility Index 534%
Bonds can be a great investment if you time your purchases. Back in 2009 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, I highlighted for readers a basket of BBB rated utility company bonds yielding as much as 10%. More recently, I’ve recommended bonds of lower rated but strengthening companies like AES Corp that have at times yielded upwards of 8% to maturity. These bonds have also banked capital gains twice that as credit raters have steadily upgraded them. I call that playing on my home court and I do it for readers in a regularly tracked bond portfolio.
In fact, I’ve rarely come across a worse piece of advice in my 30-plus years in the investment advisory business. It’s literally a sure-fire recipe to eventually run out of money.
The bottom line is these Target funds are as fatally flawed as the low return investments they hold. Neither have they been particularly safe in bear markets: Target 2015 dropped -24% in 2008, while Target 2030 lost -33%.
That’s not to say Vanguard doesn’t have some good funds. In fact, I frequently recommend the Vanguard Intermediate Term Tax Exempt Fund and its 2.5% yield as a place for investors to temporarily park cash.
But the Target funds’ popularity makes it pretty clear to me that more people than ever are looking for easy answers to investment challenges—rather than embracing the opportunities all around us to meaningfully improve their lives.
The idea that retirees or investors close to retirement must always own some set portion of their portfolios in fixed income like bonds, annuities and CDs is frankly preposterous.
Don’t Leave it Up to Vanguard
Which brings me to another bit of retirement killing advice frequently dispensed by investment media: Individual investors are too handicapped in the current market environment to make their own moves, including buying stocks.
It’s true that giant ETFs governed by algorithmic trading strategies now account for most daily volume. That’s significantly increased volatility and momentum as the stock market has moved higher. We still don’t know what their impact will be when a genuine bear market arrives. But I suspect we got a pretty good taste of it in the fourth quarter of 2018, when the stock market crashed right into the Christmas holiday.
Fortunately, there’s a very bright silver lining here for investors who take the time to think for themselves: All this jacked up momentum has already provided numerous opportunities to buy high quality stocks at what we call “Dream” buy prices. Those are prices that would only be reached under extreme circumstances, but if they did would lock in windfall gains.
For instance… in early February of 2018, AES Corp dropped below our Dream buy price of $10 per share. Our analysis confirmed the company was rock-solid, having recently increased its dividend by 8.3%. But algorithmic selling nonetheless drove this Dow Jones Utility Average member to its lowest price in three years. We saw the opportunity to recommend a table-pounding buy on the stock, and since then it’s returned nearly 90%.
You read that right. A super steady utility stock rewarded investors with a two-year return of nearly 90% including dividends, just for being willing to buy when the “algos” are selling.
Or take renewable energy generator Brookfield Renewable Partners, a long-time Conservative Holding of ours that visited its Dream buy price in late December 2018. Since then, it’s handed us a return of more than 90 percent.
The same algorithmic investors have also afforded us several opportunities the past couple years to harvest windfall gains, on either all or a portion of stocks temporarily driven into the stratosphere. In late 2017, we took a partial profit on WEC Energy Group (NYSE: WEC) when the stock ran into the low 70s. Two months later, readers were able to reinvest the gains they banked at a price in the high 50s. Recently WEC was near $100, handing us yet another opportunity to take money off the table to reinvest later.
I expect many more opportunities from algorithm-inspired volatility to both buy very low and sell very high in the coming months. And Conrad’s Utility Investor readers will take advantage following my simple three-part strategy I highlight in every Portfolio Update:
I think you’re probably catching my drift now. Yes, the technical aspects of this market are a lot different than they were even a decade ago. I still remember that date back in the mid-1980s when mutual funds’ average daily trading volume overtook individual investor trades.
Now the “passively” strategies that are governed by quantitative algorithms and executed by computers have achieved primacy over those so-called “actively managed” mutual funds.
It has been more than a decade since the stock market bottomed during the 2008-09 Financial Crisis. But those 10 years plus have proven once again that even the damage from the biggest and baddest bear markets can be overcome with a steady hand guiding a disciplined investment strategy.
Yeah, the S&P 500 lost about 55% from the end of June 2007 to the bottom on March 9, 2009. But since then, this most basic of stock indexes has returned in the neighborhood of 515%. Even if you’d invested 100% of your money at the top in mid-2007, you’d have earned 8.8% a year on your money. That’s basically the 9 percent average the stock market has returned if your time horizon is measured in decades. And anything invested at the bottom would have returned over 18% a year.
Armed with a willing trader like Interactive Brokers, individual investors today can literally buy any stock in any market in the world. The big pools of capital in contrast are strictly limited to what they can invest in.
That’s because only a relatively small handful of stocks are liquid enough to take positions large enough to be potentially meaningful to returns. If they buy too much of a stock, they basically own the store. Getting out in a pinch will be next to impossible. If they own too little, even a 100% gain may not move the profit meter for the portfolio.
The problem is even worse for passively run pools of capital, which basically slosh money around inside ETFs. Every time they buy or sell, all the investments in that ETF change hands. The bigger these pools grow, the more they move the markets higher. And with so many of the governing algorithms written similarly, the effect is compounded.
Worst of all, there’s no human being ultimately calling the shots on trades. The only way to call a halt in the action is to literally pull the plug on the computers doing the trading.
Individual investors of course do feel the pain when a stock we hold gets sold off by the algos. The difference is, provided we’ve done our homework regarding the underlying company’s strengths and weaknesses, the suddenly lower price will be an opportunity to add to positions at a lower price. And if we’re lucky and get our Dream price, we won’t have to wait long for a windfall gain.
But we individual investors still have a huge advantage over the computers running these huge pools of funds, just as we did over the big fund managers of the past: We’re infinitely more nimble.
So let me introduce you to a strategy that does all these things. It’s based on my nearly 35 years of accumulated investment knowledge and experience.
As you’ve probably gathered from reading this, the cornerstone of the strategy is stocks, specifically of healthy and growing companies that pay generous and increasing dividends. The focus is essential services, without which a functioning modern world is impossible.
I’ll have more on the opportunity I see in businesses later in this letter. But suffice to say the stocks I’ve built my career on have proven their ability time and again to grow their earnings and dividends in every economic and market environment, including financial crises like 2008-09.
Now in a latter stage bull market, some of them pay safe dividend yields as high as 10%, while others are growing as fast as 20% a year.
I want to make clear right now that I’m not a yield chaser.
In fact, I devote a column in every issue of Conrad’s Utility Investor to my Endangered Dividends List. These stocks lure unwary income seekers with the sirens’ call of mouthwatering yields, eventually crushing their portfolios on the rocks of deep dividend cuts and usually even deeper share price declines.
As I said, my CUI coverage universe of nearly 200 companies is focused on essential services. That fact alone weeds out more than 95% of dividend paying stocks at genuine risk to dividend cuts.
Nonetheless, as anyone who’s invested a while has learned, danger can lurk even in the safest of investment pools. So in any given issue, I’ll typically find a dozen or so companies that may be headed for trouble. The early warnings enabled us to dodge half a dozen dividend cuts in 2019. That number was 20 for 2018.
Many investors are under the misconception that if they buy a company yielding 14% and management cuts the dividend in half, they’ll still be getting a return somewhere in the 7% range.
They’re right about the dividend. What they fail to take into account is the severe capital losses that almost always follow a dividend cut, sometimes as much as 50%. That’s adding insult to injury for investors smarting from lost income. And it’s why when a company starts showing signs of trouble, it’s always better to get out sooner rather than later.
In fact, dividend cuts these days are often just the start of bad times ahead for investors. A propane distributor on my EDL the past few years, for example, wound up eliminating its payout entirely just two years after cutting it by more than 80%. Its shares are down more than 95% since that first cut.
I can say we warned readers repeatedly that business was still bad and worse could be in store. And I’m happy to say we saved a lot of people a lot of money, as this company has continued to slide towards Chapter 11 bankruptcy, very likely later this year.
My “Secret Sauce”
✔︎ Dividend Safety.
✔︎ Revenue Reliability.
✔︎ Regulatory Relations.
✔︎ Balance Sheet and Refinancing Risk.
✔︎ Operating Efficiency.
Helping income-seeking investors avoid stocks at risk of dividend cuts is one of my most important objectives at CUI. Even more important, however, is showing you what stocks to buy, and when to buy them.
My Quality Grade system rates each of the roughly 200 companies in our Utility Report Card coverage universe on five basic factors:
Companies are rated from A (highest quality) to F (lowest), depending on how many of these criteria are met. I then combine these ratings with my read of valuation criteria to deliver my buy/hold/sell ratings for all the companies in the coverage universe. All buy-rated companies are also assigned a target buy price, above which we do not advise buying.
Every three months, the Utility Report Card highlights an in-depth explanation of Quality Grades and how every company I track stacks up on each of the five factors.
While a great many factors go into determining each of these criteria, my guiding principal is that you always have to take into consideration both quantitative and the qualitative aspects to get a clear picture.
Take dividend safety. The “payout ratio” is easily the most used and abused number in income investing. In fact, in my experience only a handful of advisors actually this information the right way, let alone investors. That is, so the payout ratio actually says something useful about whether a dividend is safe or at risk.
The calculation itself sounds simple enough: Divide the dividend by earnings from which it’s paid. The lower the percentage result, the better covered the dividend by profits, and therefore the safer it is.
The trick is to know where to find the right inputs. Popular investment screens, for example, are notorious for including one-time cash disbursements as dividends. They’re also always late to reflect dividend cuts and increases, as well as announced payouts for new entities following initial public offerings.
All of these errors will result in a wrong dividend number in the numerator, and therefore a misleading payout ratio. Screens get it even more wrong when it comes to accurately showing earnings. Most often, that’s because they almost universally use earnings per share under GAAP, even if that figure includes significant one-time gains and losses.
Big screen services also almost always fail to identify pass through entities like real estate investment trusts, which under law are able to minimize taxable earnings and therefore pay dividends from cash flow. As a result, the payout ratios they report are not only basically useless, but misleading and therefore capable of doing great harm.
That’s why every quarterly earnings season I calculate payout ratios by hand for the 200 or so companies tracked in the Utility Report Card. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to real dividend safety analysis.
As shareholders of the former SCANA Corp found out when that Endangered Dividends List utility cut its dividend by 80%, a low payout ratio isn’t worth much if there’s reason to expect the bottom to drop out from earnings. What counts is sustainability, and that wasn’t possible to ensure with South Carolina regulators out looking for the utility’s blood.
Widely distributed erroneously calculated payout ratios also bring opportunities. And I’d like to thank the analysts who so bungled their dividend safety calculations that we were able to add NextEra Energy Partners to our model Portfolio when it traded in the 20s a couple years ago. The stock recently traded in the upper 50s, actually well above our recommended entry point.
Wall Street analysts "mistake" allowed us to buy NEP in the $20s and ride the stock into the high $50s...
We didn’t just recommend NextEra Energy Partners for its safe dividend. That stock is A-rated because it stacks up well on the four other factors as well. And I arrive at my read on each of them by also looking at a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data.
It’s a lot more work than just looking at a number. But it’s the only method that gets you to see the forest when it comes to a company, rather than get stuck up in the trees.
That’s one reason I also set great store in getting out of the office and talking to people in the industries I cover. That includes an annual trip in November to the Edison Electric Institute’s Annual Financial Conference, from which I always share my observations as well as my top picks and pans, with readers.
My trip to the 2017 conference in Orlando, Florida proved well worth the price of admission. My four picks topped the Dow Jones Utility Average total return by more than 15 percentage points. I also got early heads up on the impact of tax reform (positive), regulatory trouble in South Carolina (negative), solar power growth despite steep tariffs (positive) and merger activity (positive).
The 2018 EEI conference was particularly illuminating. For one thing, the event occurred in downtown San Francisco at the same time California was suffering through devastating and tragic wildfires.
With smoke from the fires blowing over the city, I soon learned I wasn’t the only one who became lightheaded just stepping out onto the street. The silver lining is there was a lot more action inside the hotel than usual. And that meant an ideal opportunity to approach people at informal activities and one-on-one meetings with executives, as well as from the usual fare of specialized panels, company presentations and just keeping my ear to the ground.
What I learned in San Francisco has been invaluable assessing risk and reward with California utilities since. That certainly includes PG&E when the company eventually declared bankruptcy. But I’ve also been able to navigate a difficult environment for the renewable energy companies that sell wind, solar and geothermal energy to PG&E. And my recommendation of another Golden State utility Edison International (NYSE: EIX) netted readers a nearly 50 percent return over the following 12 months.
These are themes that can pretty much only be discerned on the ground. I share my insights from last year’s conference in my audio/visual presentation “On the Ground at EEI 2019.” It’s one of five reports I’m offering investors who take me up on my offer for a trial subscription to Conrad’s Utility Investor.
It’s hard to over emphasize just how important dividend growth is to income investing now. Fixed income yields aren’t just at generation low levels. The value of what they do pay erodes each year due to inflation.
Say you buy a 10-year Treasury bond. You get a current yield of less than 2%. That’s it. There’s no prospect of an increase and every day its value is diminished by the rate of inflation, which officially right now is around 2% but is actually a lot higher for what most essential expenses like health care for example.
Now contrast bonds’ stagnant prospective returns with those of a stock that’s been one of my top picks, Algonquin Power & Utilities (NYSE: AQN). The company’s dividend yield is just shy of 4%, and management has been increasing 10% annually.
That 10% is roughly five times the current rate of inflation. Moreover, a 4% yield that’s increased by 10% will pay 4.4% on the original investment after year one, 4.8% after year two and more than 7% after year five. And because stock prices over time will follow a rising dividend higher, there will be generous capital gains as well.
As my report “Riding the Electric Utility Renaissance” explains, utilities are growing their dividends faster than at any time in memory because of investment opportunities not seen in decades. And unlike the power plant building cycles of the past, this investment is actually driving down costs and increasing efficiency.
That adds up to an exceedingly rate combination of low risk, robust earnings growth and downward pressure on customer rates. And the result is sustainable dividends and dividend growth for investors in sector stocks.
Diversify and Balance: It’s Not Hard
One thing you’ll find about our Conrad’s Utility Investor Portfolios is we diversify and balance. No matter how big we see the opportunity in a particular sector like electric utilities, we’re not going to overload. That’s also our ironclad rule with individual stocks, again no matter how much we like them.
We can avoid doubling down without sacrificing the long-term upside of our portfolio for one simple reason: For all its promise, electricity is far from the only growth game in essential services.
The best and biggest of the communications sector, for example, are on the verge of an investment and revenue explosion, as they roll out 5-G networks that are enabling a quantum leap in network speeds and capacity. Some observers estimate the market for consumer and Internet of Things applications made possible will eventually dwarf industry leaders’ current revenue base.
That’s an impressive claim indeed, when you consider Verizon Communications did roughly $132 billion in sales over the last 12 months. And as my report points out, investors have an unprecedented opportunity to buy this sector cheap. Even industry leader Verizon trades at barely 12 times expected 2020 earnings, despite recently posting year-over-year earnings growth of 25 percent.
Communications companies’ big discount to the rest of the stock market can be chalked up in large part to business failures. Investors who’ve watched Frontier Communications eliminate its dividend and drop by more than -76% over the last 12 months can be forgiven for being gun shy about committing more money to the sector.
Unfortunately, the travails of weaker telecoms aren’t over. Frontier’s impending bankruptcy is just the latest stage of an industry evolution that’s seen the rich like Verizon inevitably get richer at the expense of almost everyone else. Even the fourth biggest US wireless company Sprint Corp appears to have a date with bankruptcy court, should it fail to merge this time with T-Mobile USA.
Communications evolution means investors can’t just buy any sector company and expect to realize big returns from 5-G and the Internet of Things. Selectivity is essential, and our Quality Grade system is the ideal tool for making the right choices.
Perhaps the most essential service of all is water. At this point, municipalities and other government entities own and operate drinking water and wastewater franchises serving more than 75% of Americans. But that’s changing fast, as officials look for ways to overcome an investment deficit amid rising public clamor for safer water supplies.
They’re turning to the handful of investor owned water utilities to provide that surety. And the result is an emerging earnings growth opportunity for the likes of the former Aqua America—now renamed Essential Utilities—and American Water Works.
The biggest challenge for investors is valuation. Investors’ zeal for safety and yield combined with a limited supply of water stocks to buy has resulted in unsustainably high valuations for many sector utilities. That makes them extremely vulnerable to disappointment and selloffs.
My report “Better than Oil: The Most Essential Resource” not only highlights the best water companies for growth, but it separates out the stratospherically priced and identifies what would be fair entry points. I also look at the relatively new trend of sector mergers, including what’s resulted from the now concluded four-way battle for a small utility in New England and another in the US Southwest.
What Kind of Investor Are You?
These are all compelling opportunities, even if you’re not primarily investing for income. That’s why in addition to our safety first Conservative Holdings and more risk tolerate Aggressive Holdings, we also offer a Top 10 DRIPs Portfolio.
Top 10 DRIPs is specifically designed for long-term savers. It’s based on a wealth building strategy I’ve personally followed since the 1980s, and which has been invaluable paying for what will ultimately be three childrens’ college education.
I’ve never done anything fancy with my DRIP Portfolio. I’ve just bought good companies and systematically reinvested the dividends, quarter after quarter. Every quarter’s cash payout is higher than the last, in large part because I own more shares but also as my companies have raised their dividends.
One of my stocks is actually on the verge of “lapping” my initial investment: My annual dividend will soon be larger than what I originally put into it!
The 10 companies in this portfolio all have very strong, long-term track records of increasing shareholder value. And each is set to keep doing so for years to come. In fact, they increased their dividends an average of 4.4% last year, the surest outward sign of inner grace. I continue to personally own most of them.
The Top 10 DRIPs is diversified and balanced by stocks and sectors. And I follow the same principal with the Conservative Holdings and the Aggressive Holdings. Some years, a particular stock or sector leads. In others it lags. Over time, however, these companies increase their value as their businesses grow. That means we enjoy capital gains, as well as a rising stream of dividends that beats inflation by a wide margin.
If you have a successful business to invest in, by all means do so. Productive assets are almost certainly the best place for your savings. That’s also a practice I follow with my own business Capitalist Times, the publisher of Conrad’s Utility Investor.
When it comes to an investment portfolio, however, nothing beats a diversified and balanced portfolio of high quality companies with generous and growing dividends. My goal is to help you build one based on my foundation of time-tested principles and track record of almost 35 years in this sector.
My college major, however, was Anthropology. And while I graduated with a Masters of International Management in Finance, my goal was initially to work for the US government, either the State Department or the Overseas Private Investment Corp.
In fact, I got my first job in the investment business on a recommendation from one of my oldest friends, writing letters and answering phone calls for KCI Communications’ investment newsletter gurus. That was real hard work. But it did teach me volumes about something business school couldn’t: What really motivates investors, and what readers really want from advisors.
I continued to answer reader queries from 1989 to 2013, when I was sole and founding editor of Roger Conrad’s Utility Forecaster. I can say right now that not everything I touched turned to gold.
The electric industry deregulation scare of 1993-94 found me fighting for Utility Forecaster’s very life, as many investors fell prey to the very wrong conventional wisdom that the sector business model was done.
In 1999, I relied on subscriber anger to convince my publisher not to change the name of the newsletter in a tech-crazed world. And while I did sell Enron before its final collapse in late 2001, many of my Portfolio stocks did take on big losses in the wake of its fall in 2002.
These setbacks did teach me one thing above all else: Keep a steady hand no matter how bad things get.
Over the years, I have had to cut some stocks loose at a bad time. Sometimes it’s been the consequence of not seeing emerging troubles before it was too late. Sometimes, it was due to circumstances that could not have been reasonably foreseen. And sometimes, I’ve lost simply because management was less than truthful with me, as well as others.
Keeping steady, however, has enabled me to weather the setbacks while staying in position to profit from better times that inevitably came. And that’s ultimately the reason why Hulbert Financial Digest rated me number one for 10-year risk adjusted total return in April 2013.
That’s a period that included the Financial Crisis of 2007-09 and I’m very proud of it. But it was time to leave my labor of love for 24 years, Utility Forecaster, to join my partners at Capitalist Times and to launch Conrad’s Utility Investor.
CUI has since then been the advisory I always wanted to write. The electronic format has enabled me to provide a wealth of information in a far more timely way than was possible under the old print format. I’ve been able to provide multi-media, rapid alerts and quarterly online subscriber chats. And it’s been truly liberating to control the marketing message my name is used for—no more “rare” coin advertisements!
As far as performance, the now six plus years from 2013-2019 have been a much more up and down period for essential services and income investing in general than the prior 10. Nonetheless, what I’ve provided in our three portfolios has been generally in line with the average annual return of 13.1% I delivered for readers on average from 1989 though mid-2013, as my graph of rolling total returns shows:
Who I Am
Now please let me share a little bit about me. I came to this business in the mid-1980s from an admittedly unusual background for an investment analyst. My model for investing was my father, a college professor who built a comfortable portfolio from a modest salary by using the principles of patience, persistence and hard work.
CUI's Conservative Portfolio
TOP 10 DRIP
CUI's Aggressive Portfolio
Conrad's Utility Investor Performance by numbers
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Roger S. Conrad
Editor and Publisher, Conrad’s Utility Investor
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