The utility sector is a favorite of dividend and income investors. The group was the best performing group of 2011 as investors snapped up higher dividends rather than Treasuries and CDs. So far, 2012 has been choppy for the sector as it faces higher EPS hurdles on emissions, the potentiality of far higher dividend taxes in 2013, and also an environment where investors are starting to expect higher interest rates sooner than previously expected.
Today we have seen a diverging set of calls in the utility sector. Bank of America Merrill Lynch has issued a somewhat cautious outlook, while Credit Suisse has talked up the risk-adjusted returns. This is on the heels of a deep value and growth screen we ran on Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC); Entergy Corporation (NYSE: ETR); American Electric Power Co., Inc. (NYSE: AEP); and Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (NYSE: PEG) as those utilities averaged dividend yields of close to 5%, were all large-cap, were down for the year so far, had operating margins of 15% or more, and a return on equity of at least 10%.
Credit Suisse’s outlook noted that there are still plenty of risk adjusted returns with the regulated utility group offering annual rates of return of 7% to 11%. The breakdown is roughly 3% to 7% in earnings per share plus the $% to 5% in the dividend yields. And on the risk side of the equation, CRedit Suisse sees a beta range of only 0.6 to 0.7 for the group. The firm noted that this is a very compelling return in a low interest rate environment and fundamentally against the S&P 500 Index that would “require a minimum growth rate of 7% plus the 2.1% dividend yield to match the Utility stocks.”
Bank of America gave an earnings preview for the first quarter for utilities and brought up no winter, low earnings, and updating gas curves. The mild weather is expected to drag down first quarter utility earnings by 6%. The low natural gas price adjustments have been ratcheted down significantly from 2012 to 2014. NV Energy, Inc. (NYSE: NVE) is noted as being expected to have a large dividend hike.
BofA also noted that Calpine Corporation (NYSE: CPN) has risen sharply and NRG Energy, Inc. (NYSE: NRG) and GenOn Energy, Inc. (NYSE: GEN) have both dropped sharply on the coal/gas switching theme, but the firm’s take is that the stocks may be extended too far on both sides as it does not see much change in guidance from any of the three companies.
It is always interesting when you see different calls when the same data is available. It is a part of what makes a horserace.
JON C. OGG