Why the Street Hates Utility Stocks

utility stocksUtilities are the classic defensive investment.  Generally slow growing, but high-yielding and inexpensive relative to earnings, utilities are the traditional dividend value stock.

Now Wall Street seems to have turned on the utilities business.  Should you listen?

 

What Utilities Really Are

An understanding of what utilities actually do really helps to explain why Wall Street might be putting them on the unlovable list.  By and large, public regulated utilities are merely financing operations for states and municipalities.

Regulated utilities raise capital to build a power plant, distribution networks, and establish their operations.  Then, making their case to local regulators, utilities plainly state the cost of creating and delivering energy to a specific group of customers.  Most states establish a rate base, or the amount of money that the company can claim as an investment and maintenance expense each year to justify the cost of electricity per kilowatt of electricity or cubic foot of natural gas.  Regulated utilities then charge customers a fee for use proportional to their energy consumption.

Regulated utilities essentially spend X dollars to build and maintain their facilities and infrastructure then seek approval to earn Y% per year on their investment.

Unregulated utilities are an entirely different animal.  Their markets are not guaranteed, there are no real monopolies, and competition can make for inconsistent cash flows when commodity prices change.  One company’s coal plant may be more or less competitive to another company’s solar plant depending on coal prices, for example.

 

Why Utilities Rock

Utilities are awesome investments because:

    1. They’re recession-proof: For the most part, the demand for electricity is consistent in all economic climates. You can be sure that the utility bill will be paid well before the mortgage or car payment – a life without electricity is no life at all.
    2. They’re easy to understand: In the case of regulated utilities, a company builds its infrastructure then charges prices for energy and electricity based on the amount it invested into its fixed assets.
    3. Cash flows regularly: While this industry can require large and infrequent investments, utilities do generate a significant amount of cash. This cash is rarely reinvested, and it is instead paid out to owners in the form of dividends. Utilities always dominate lists of highest-yielding businesses, and they have impressive earnings payout ratios. (A payout ratio is the amount of earnings paid out as dividends to investors.) Utility companies also find it easy to finance major capital investments while paying consistent dividends.
    4. My dog could be a utility CEO: You would have to try to fail to destroy a regulated utility company. As regulated utilities have guaranteed pricing, guaranteed customers, and a product that people simply cannot live without, the worst CEO you could imagine could steer a utility company successfully. Utilities are (as far as I know) the only companies that posted profits continuously through the Great Depression, the largest economic downturn in US history.

Why Wall Street Turned on Utilities

The very attributes that make utilities a great investment are the reason Wall Street isn’t too fond of utilities:

    1. No growth: Electricity and natural gas consumption is predictable – we know that growth will likely be proportional to population growth. Seeing as this country adds new people quite slowly – the population expands at about .7-1% per year – one should expect utilities to grow slower than your average S&P 500 component.
    2. Valuations are high: In a low yield climate like we have now, investors snap up utilities like they’re going out of style. Currently, the utility industry trades at a 20% premium to the S&P 500 on a price-to-earnings basis. Historically, it traded at a 20% discount to the S&P 500. Should valuations revert to the mean, stock prices will have to drop by 33%.
    3. Bond-like attributes: Common stock in a utility company tends to trade a lot like a bond because the cash flows (dividends, in this case) are reliable, predictable, and unlikely to change significantly from year to year. Therefore, utility stocks rarely get the headline attention that highly volatile industries do.

 

Should You Buy Utility Stocks?

The answer is, as always, it depends.

If you’re happy to accept returns that will neither make you rich nor poor, utilities are a great place to put your money. With a current industry PE of 16.9, you can expect to earn roughly 5.9% per year on your investment in the very long haul. You can also expect to have consistently increasing dividends over time. However, you run into one serious (mostly short-term) risk: rising interest rates. If rates rise, high-yielding utilities are likely to fall out of favor, and share values will fall.

If you’re looking for outsized returns and can accept more volatility, look elsewhere. You’re not going to get rich quickly in the utilities business, although you will get fairly safe returns.

For these reasons, I would recommend anyone look at utilities as a long-dated corporate bond. Utilities tend to have similar convexity profiles in that utility stocks trade higher when interest rates go lower, and lower when interest rates go higher. The spread between utility dividend yields and the yield from a basket of long-dated investment-grade debt is fairly small.

It’s really a question of concentration: would you prefer to have big stock exposure to a single industry that is generally safe, or a diversified mix of bonds from companies in various industries that may be slightly riskier in the aggregate?

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Comments

  1. says

    I have sold all my utilities in the AAAMP portfolio because they have become expensive, I believe interest rates will rise for years to come, and we currently have an overbearing administration that loves regulations, hates energy (except green), and actively picks winners and losers.

    • says

      Utilities have been moving higher for much of the past year. I think it’s more an interest rate play right now than it is risk-on/risk-off.

  2. says

    It’s been annoying to see our local utility raise prices 15% this year and another 20% two years ago. It’s really annoying and I’m not sure how these monopolies are allowed to be publicly traded companies. It’s absurd….”regulation” or no regulation.

    • says

      Hmm, I’d look into your particular state’s method for rate increases. Usually, rate increases are accepted only if:

      1) The utility spent a ton of money to add to their rate base, or the amount of capital they need to service their customers.
      2) The utility is earning less than a mandated return on their capital investment.

      Personally, I think having them publicly-traded is a good idea, since it allows their customers to benefit from rate increases. Buy the utility and you can get a little back of what you pay in every month. ;)

  3. says

    I am attracted by the high yields and stability of utilities. I hear you though on interest rate risk. As a group, when rates start rising to “normal” levels, utility share prices are going to take a beating. Until then, make hay while the sun shines.

  4. says

    I bought some shares of a utility back in 2008. It has gone up quite a bit since then in addition to paying nice dividends. I buy utilities for the dividend and consider any price appreciation a bonus.

    • says

      I think that’s the best way to look at it. It would be natural to have some kind of price appreciation as earnings accelerate, but since 2008 (or even the peak prior) the acceleration in price far exceeds the acceleration in earnings power. They’re great for long-term buy and hold investors seeking income, so long as you can tolerate potentially large capital losses from swings in interest rate policy. The same could be said of bonds, of course.

  5. says

    I wouldn’t mind a 6% return if I’m geting increasing dividends as well. Do you find that people will make utilities a large percentage of their portfolio, or just a small slice of the pie and put more into mutual funds, bonds, other single stocks, etc…?

    • says

      I don’t think people are putting a large part of their portfolio in utilities. Rather, I think people who live on fixed-income assets like CDs and bonds are shifting to the safest kind of equities (utilities) driving up the price and thus driving down the yield. If you were a 65 year old retiree, a 4-5% dividend from utilities looks a heck of a lot better than the 2% you get on CDs. And to some extent, the potential for capital loss is probably higher in a pool of bonds than in a pool of utility stocks. If I were a retiree, I’d likely be willing to displace at least a portion of my CDs/bond holdings with utility stocks for a higher yield. I think utility stocks are better in the sense that there is some inflation protection in the form of rising earnings over time. Bond coupons (with the exception of TIPS) don’t have the same protection.

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