The Best Value High-Yield and High-Return Utilities (XLU, EXC, ETR, AEP, PEG)

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The utility sector has been a rather poor performer so far in 2012, as investors have sought growth and less dependence on high payouts, and higher dividend taxes could be a possibility after this year. What had been an overbought index at the end of 2011 became a very oversold index recently, and the major utilities have been in most cases trying to find a bottom after challenging some support levels.

24/7 Wall St. has formed a screening on the sector to see which high-yielding utilities may have finally priced in the worst of the news. We ran a screen on Finviz.com looking for the best of the best utilities. In our screen, we chose the following criteria:

  • Market cap of $5 billion or more
  • Daily trading volume of at least 1 million shares
  • Dividend yield of 4%
  • Year-to-date stock performance was negative
  • Return on equity was at least 10%
  • Operating margin of 15% or more
  • Debt-to-equity under 1.4-times

The Utilities Select Sector SPDR (NYSE: XLU) managed to close up 0.6% at $34.87. Our screen turned up only four of the following utility leaders, with the key criteria being by dividend yield (highest to lowest): Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC); Entergy Corporation (NYSE: ETR); American Electric Power Co., Inc. (NYSE: AEP); and Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (NYSE: PEG).

With the fear of rising interest rates ahead and higher dividend taxes, investors have tended to shy away from the steady earnings, yields and returns of utilities. The two questions that might matter the most are: 1) What if rates do not rise as much as investors hope? And 2) What if dividend taxes are not going to rise to over 40% for the high-income earners? Another question to ask is: What if the regulatory climate lightens up a tad against the utility sector? If one or two of these possibilities start to become reality, then there may be a huge opportunity in this sector. Even if these issues remain, it may be that most of the bad news is getting close to being factored in.

Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC) is the leader of the pack due to its 5.55% dividend yield. It has a market cap of $25 billion and trades more than 7 million shares per day. Year-to date its shares have fallen by 11.6%. The utility’s return on equity was listed as 17.9%, its operating margin is 23.6% and its debt-to-equity ratio was less than 1 at 0.94. Exelon closed up 0.6% at $38.06 against a 52-week range of $37.48 to $45.45.

Entergy Corporation (NYSE: ETR) has a market cap of $11.7 billion and trades 1.2 million shares per day. It has a dividend yield of 5% and year-to date its shares have fallen by 8.4%. The utility’s return on equity was listed as 15.4%, its operating margin is 17.9% and its debt-to-equity ratio was 1.34. Entergy recently closed up 0.5% at $66.43 against a 52-week range of $57.60 to $74.00.

American Electric Power Co., Inc. (NYSE: AEP) has a market cap of $18 billion and trades 4.9 milllion shares per day. It has a dividend yield of 5% and year to date its shares have fallen by 7.5%. The utility’s return on equity was listed as 11.1%, its operating margin is 18.4% and its debt-to-equity ratio was 1.24. Shares closed up 0.5% at $37.97 and the 52-week range is $33.09 to $41.98.

Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (NYSE: PEG) has a market cap of $15 billion and trades 3.6 milllion shares per day. It has a dividend yield 4.9%. Year to date, its shares have fallen by 8%. The utility’s return on equity was listed as 14.1%, its operating margin is 24.4% and its debt-to-equity ratio was the lowest of the group at only 0.80. Public Service Enterprise closed up 1% at $30.33 against a 52-week range of $27.97 to $35.48.

What is interesting about this group is that AEP is the only member of the four that is not down more than 10% from its 52-week high, and all of these are closer to their 52-week lows than their highs.

JON C. OGG