Utilities on the Upswing

With unprecedented declines in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index at the start of the year and increasingly volatile markets, investors have piled into safe-haven investments such as electric, water and propane utilities. In fact, the S&P 500 Utilities index is outpacing the broad index by nearly 6% so far this year.

And as we noted in our last issue, some of our core holdings, such as Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) and Aqua America (NYSE: WTR), have had double-digit share price gains, 17% and 10%, respectively, and AmeriGas Partners LP  (NYSE: APU) has appreciated 6% since we added it to our portfolio.

Here we take a look at how these firms’ earnings forecasts for 2016 are matching up to the higher valuations.

Conservative Portfolio holding and #2 Best Buy Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) has a bullish view on America’s economic prospects. In the last quarterly call in early February, management said it believes the economy, supported by robust employment and higher spending, will grow in 2016.

Adding to its bullish outlook, the company anticipates several tailwinds in 2016 from new sales growth to extended tax benefits. Sales growth guidance for 2016 is 1.1% for retail sales, 1.2% for residential sales and 1% for both commercial and industrial sales. Also, the recent five-year extension of the bonus depreciation will improve cash flow by approximately $4 billion through 2020. 

Over the next few years, some of the biggest tax benefits are expected to be generated by Plant Ratcliffe, Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, along with a variety of renewable-energy projects and environmental-compliance investments, management said on the call.

Of course, when the recent merger with gas utility AGL Resources (NYSE: GAS) closes in the second half of the year, as it is expected to do, the acquisition will both add to and diversify the utility’s earnings.

On a stand-alone basis, excluding the costs of the merger, 2016 earnings per share guidance is $2.76 to $2.88 per share, and assuming the merger closes, Southern’s long-term outlook for earnings-per-share growth ranges between 4% and 5%. 

As comparison, for the full year of 2015, Southern earned $2.60 per share compared with $2.19 per share in 2014, an increase of 41 cents per share.

With a dividend yield of 4.28%, Southern Co. is a buy up to $61.

Aqua America (NYSE: WTR) is not your grandpa’s water utility, making major acquisitions throughout the United States to achieve greater economies of scale and earnings growth.

In fact, the buying spree has resulted in the utility hitting the high end of its earlier guidance on new customers. Total customer growth has been 1.9%, which was at the top end of the firm’s stated guidance of 1.7% to 2%. The firm has continued its steady pace of acquisitions into 2016. 

So far this year, the water utility closed on multiple deals (three water and one wastewater, and two Illinois water acquisitions) that will serve nearly 500 customers, underpinning Aqua America’s expectation to see 2016 year-over-year customer growth ranging from 1.5% to 2% again. The firm said its focus this year will be on buying larger systems that serve over 2,500 connections apiece. 

In terms of earnings guidance, Aqua America expects full-year earnings per share to be between $1.30 and $1.35. As comparison, 2015 adjusted income from continuing operations per share was up 5% to $1.26 compared with $1.20 in 2014, according to company reports.

Meanwhile, Aqua America stands out for the consistency of its dividend and dividend increases. Last year, the firm increased its quarterly dividend 7.9% to an annualized rate of just over 71 cents. This is the 25th dividend increase in 24 years, and it marks the 71st consecutive year of paying quarterly dividends, the CEO noted on the call.

For a consistent dividend of 2.2%, Aqua America is a Buy up to $35.

Earnings at AmeriGas Partners LP (NYSE: APU) have been melting with a warmer-than-normal holiday season that will affect previous 2016 forecasts. Nevertheless, management still appeared hopeful that a cooler second quarter could to some extent make up for the loss.

AmeriGas on the recent quarterly call said the firm will not meet its initial 2016 guidance of $660 million to $690 million in adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). But, management noted, “Given the importance of the second-quarter results and the fact that this quarter marks the peak of the heating season, we›re refraining from issuing additional guidance until after the completion of this quarter.”

As far as the wider analyst community, S&P Capital I.Q. consensus estimates at present are for $2.58 per share for full year 2016 compared with $3.17 per share for 2015.

Jerry E. Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of AmeriGas, said, “Although this was a challenging quarter with weather that was approximately 20% warmer than normal and nearly 17% warmer than the prior year, we were pleased to deliver adjusted EBITDA that was only 6% below the prior year. This performance was made possible through a focus on operational efficiency and cost containment, as operating expenses decreased nearly $16 million from last year’s quarter.”

Meanwhile, customer retention has been strong, with a 15% market share. Plus, AmeriGas has room to further consolidate its highly fragmented industry.

Right now, as the CEO noted, seasonality is the company’s biggest near-term operating risk, especially given the warmer-than-average winter. But the effect of seasonality should smooth out over longer-term periods, thanks to AmeriGas’s increasing geographic diversification within the U.S.

With a yield of 8.61%, AmeriGas is a buy below $50.

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