Momentum has no valuation ceiling while risks and uncertainties have no valuation floor. This is the story within utilities and among the market overall. A choppy Q2 due to unfavorable weather and weaker core sales growth seemed to only exacerbate this trend. A few companies appear to be re-rating on lower risk perceptions – ETR, FE, EVRG, SO, EIX, SRE – but otherwise we continue to see more divergence between the pure play safe regulateds vs those with diversified businesses or project/regulatory risk. Given our value focus, we are resigned to keep focusing on the messy ones.
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CMS reported 2Q19 adjusted EPS of $0.33 that missed consensus of $0.36. Mild weather was the key negative driver relative to $0.48 last year. That said, CMS reaffirmed 2019 guidance of $2.47-2.51 with bias to the midpoint. Despite a slow start in 1H19 that is down $0.26 YoY, there are several second half tailwinds expected to be realized. This includes the absence of significant reinvestment that occurred last year ($0.23), incremental cost savings, a more favorable sales mix, timing at Enterprises, and July-to-date sales growth. While CMS is perhaps working a little harder than normal to hit numbers this year, mgmt. maintains a number of levers to pull in order to execute.
Utilities rose 3% in June on the back of continued declines in L-T rates. But the market left utilities in the dust rising 7% for the month. The S&P 500 is now up 17.3% for the first half of 2019, the best performance since 1997. Utilities have held their own up 12.8%, but still trail by 450bps. At least so far, it appears that lower interest rates are helping the broader market more than utilities. Lower rates are a double-edged sword for utilities (see our recent report), as they can lead to lower allowed ROEs in rate cases. Several of the more near-term exposed companies – PNW, CNP, AGR, ED and AEE – were among the worst performers last month.
Utilities have rallied on the large drop in interest rates in recent weeks. For the year, 10-year Treasury yields have dropped to 2.01% from 2.69%. While underperforming the market, utility stocks are up 12% YTD and valuations are at or near all-time highs. This has been great news for investors, but lower interest rates are a double-edged sword for utilities. They increase the risk of lower allowed ROEs in rate cases which have otherwise held pretty stable over the past year. In this report, we identify those most and least at risk to ROE cuts and highlight pending cases with ROE sensitivity.
Our annual utilities pension review – still underfunded, not much progress
Our utilities pension review, with help from Wolfe’s Accounting/Tax team and their comprehensive report, takes a look at the state of pensions in the sector using year-end 2018 data. Utilities remain underfunded for their pensions/OPEB – with most companies in the same place amid weak equity markets and higher rates. This dynamic has reversed in 2019, with yields sharply falling. There remains wide disparity in funding levels and accounting assumptions within our coverage.
The revival of the US/China trade war stopped the 2019 bull market in its tracks with the S&P 500 falling 6.6% and bond yields declining 36bps in May. Utilities were a place to hide and only fell 1.3% beating the market by 530bps. For the year, utilities are still slightly trailing the S&P 500 (9.4% vs 9.8%) though it feels like they are way ahead. Utilities are back to a 21% P/E premium to the market vs a historic average of 3%. They have hit this level a few times before – including this past December – and its proven to be great selling opportunities since this premium never lasted. So while we worry about the economy and trade wars and bonds going toward zero yields, we still think buying utilities here is buying near a peak and stay Underweight. With rates this low, we are more wary of utility rate cases and ROEs – last month we saw NY PSC staff recommend an 8.3% ROE for ED.
CMS reported 1Q19 adjusted EPS of $0.75 that matched our estimate and was just short of consensus at $0.77. More notably, this was down relative to $0.86 last year, as storm costs ($0.10/sh) overwhelmed beneficial weather and rate relief. While it’s rare to see CMS get off to a slow start, mgmt. indicated that the quarter still came in $0.01 ahead of plan.
With an uneventful Q1, we expect investor focus to be on pending legislation on several key issues: 1) California – Gov Newsom announced a goal of passing legislation to fix the utility wildfire risks by July 12. While not sure on the timeline, we think this will get done and remain constructive on PCG. 2) Nuclear support legislation has been proposed in PA, OH and IL and all 3 states could address it during the spring sessions. We think IL has the best chance followed by OH and PA but all could potentially slip into later in the year. EXC has the most upside from these while the IPPs could face pressure depending on PJM’s ultimate capacity structure. NJ will decide tomorrow whether to give legislatively approved nuclear ZECs to PEG and EXC. 3) Other states to watch include NC on multi-year rate plans (DUK); TX on expanded AMI (ETR, XEL) and FL on an undergrounding rider (NEE, DUK).
This past week we hosted meetings with CMS CEO Patti Poppe and CFO Rejji Hayes. This was well-timed, with the company just filing a settlement on its Integrated Resource Plan that helps set the stage for capital investment opportunities over the next 10+ years. The Michigan regulatory environment continues to be well-balanced even with some turnover at the PSC, as CMS is fresh off its first electric rate case settlement in years. The cost savings opportunities still appear to have a sizable runway. All of this helps add duration and certainty to the 6-8% growth trajectory, with confidence around the midpoint. This track record of growth has spanned 16 years now.
We hosted our annual investor meeting with the Moody’s team to get their latest credit views on the utilities, power and midstream sectors. For utilities, things have quieted down (ex California) as tax reform impacts have largely played out as expected. FFO/D metrics have dropped 150-200bps on average due to lost deferred tax cash flows and currently sit in the 15-16% area and likely stay there. Companies have taken actions to support their metrics (lot of equity) and have better visibility on regulatory treatment of tax reform. So 2019 is about executing on plans, hitting metrics and sticking to balanced funding plans (ie more equity). Moody’s still has a negative outlook on the sector but will likely go back to stable with good 2019 execution.
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