Several companies rebased their growth rates that effectively lowered long-term numbers - AGR, EVRG, CNP, DUK and NI. While these were all for different reasons, we see more strain in utilities to keep growing 5% or more. We also saw several companies talk to slower dividend growth for the first time in several years – DUK, PPL, EIX, NI, and D. Mega project risks and event risks seem to be spreading in the sector. Risk-averse investors tell us they are seeing their investable universe shrink as they try to avoid project risk, big equity needs, poor management, higher-risk businesses, and of course, CA. The problem is the “clean” companies keep trading at higher and higher multiples which in and of itself becomes a risk.
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ES’ 2019 guidance of $3.40-3.50 missed consensus of $3.49. But ES extended its 5-7% EPS growth target through 2023 from 2021, primarily from $13B of mostly T&D and water capex. The growth is net of 1) $2B of equity needed through 2023 for the capital plan and 2) offshore wind in the outer years without material earnings from offshore until 2024. Still, ES trailed the UTY likely on the new equity and is slightly ahead of it YTD. Although offshore adds risk to ES’ story of a high-quality T&D/water utility, ES’ EPS growth through 2023 would be even higher excluding offshore construction drag. And growth should be robust just from existing contracted offshore projects, with potential upside from new contracts, AMI, grid mod and Northern Pass.
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.
PCG’s impending bankruptcy will impact a wide swath of companies especially renewables suppliers. These include large ones investors are aware of (CWEN, NEE/NEP, ED) and smaller ones not so obvious (NRG, DTE, likely others). For the other CA utilities, EIX and SRE, investors will be focused on what this means for getting long-term fixes for wildfire risks. Project risk continues to rear its ugly head as we have seen with ACP pipeline delays. Key updates this quarter include D/DUK on ACP, SO on Vogtle, AGR on NECEC and Vineyard Wind, and SRE on Cameron. Pension risk (and OPEBs and NDTs) due to the Q4 market swoon and drop in rates could hurt as D highlighted recently. NI, ETR and others may face some headwind.
Can utilities keep the defensive rally going? We’re skeptical. Utilities beat the market by 1500bps in Q4 2018 and outperformed 670bps for the year. This may continue near term given a host of negative macro signals, but these big defensive utility moves have historically been good times to take profits in the group.
Our utility financial “checkup” examines projections for utility balance sheets and credit metrics. Tax reform was the overarching theme in 2018 for utility balance sheets and precipitated a large portion of the equity deals completed this year; in total, we saw +$19B completed across our coverage via blocks, forwards, or internally. Since our mid-year review, we now project slightly better FFO/debt in 2020 (+0.5%) due to equity issuances and asset sales. EV/EBITDA is now a half-turn higher given the run-up in equity valuations. Overall, we continue to see utility financial metrics stagnating with higher leverage at certain companies leading to wide P/E dispersion.
We had CEO Jim Judge and CFO Phil Lembo on the road meeting with investors. Our main takeaway is management is confident on hitting at least the midpoint of its 5-7% EPS growth target through 2021 based on its 4-year capital plan, which excludes Northern Pass and offshore wind. We upgraded ES in late June, when it was one of the worst performing regulateds at that point. ES has done well since but trades at only a 2% premium to the average utility group P/E (excluding EIX, PCG, PPL), well below other low-risk large cap utilities. We like ES’ story of a high-quality T&D utility with the strongest credit ratings in the sector, constructive LT rate deals in MA/CT, and the ability to find new investments, some of which could be detailed in Feb. Reiterate Outperform.
Market volatility in October caught many off-guard and the hope was things would settle down post earnings. Well they got much worse spurred by the disruption of the CA fires. PCG and EIX ended November down 44% and 20%, respectively, on the heels of the destructive fires. These were popular value names in the utility space and their sharp stock collapses clearly caused investor pain. However, the second derivative impact was just as meaningful. The “Anything but California” trade took over amidst utilities, lifting already expensive low-risk utilities to higher levels. Many investors got just as hurt by being short or underweight these names as being long CA. With investors suffering and year end approaching, the last two weeks have showed signs of portfolios shrinking and extreme risk-aversion which has only exacerbated the problem. Everyone needs a holiday.
Last week, as the California utilities collapsed amidst the fire risks, we saw increasing investor focus on second derivative impacts. One of the obvious ones relates to renewables contracts with the CA utilities, especially PCG who drew down their bank lines last week. The primary concern is what will happen to these contracts in the event that PCG files for bankruptcy due to all the fire-related claims. This primarily impacted NEP and CWEN, given they have the most exposure, though there has been somewhat of a relief rally as investors realized the chance of a PCG bankruptcy in the near-term is low. Importantly, even if there was a surprise filing at some point, we believe these power contracts with the California utilities are likely to hold up. We are buyers on the recent weakness and view NEP as a top idea here.
EEI was held in San Fran this week with the Camp Fire still burning and the host utility PCG unable to attend. EIX attended but there was not much they could really say. The CA situation cast a pall over many investors and it made every other utility story sound pretty darn good relative. The other big event was the FE coming out party as a fully regulated utility with an earlier than expected dividend growth resumption. As the CEO said, after 40 years of digging out of holes, FE is finally out and plans to never dig a new one. Higher capital plans, renewables growth, rising equity ratios, and portfolio restructuring were other key themes at the conference.
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