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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AEP’s 2Q19A of $1.00 beat consensus of $0.97, despite weaker sales growth as various other items were better than expected. AEP reaffirmed 2019 guidance of $4.00-4.20 vs consensus of $4.13 and WRe of $4.10. AEP reaffirmed LT EPS growth of 5-7% (off $3.85 in 2018) and again noted that they would be disappointed if EPS growth were not at the top end. AEP stock slightly lagged the UTY, as weak sales growth would likely be offset, which AEP has proven it can do in the past. YTD, the stock is 590bp ahead of the UTY. We like AEP’s transmission growth story and solid EPS/div growth, with potential upside from North Central wind. AEP trades at a slight premium to the group average; we think that could get to a full-turn premium.
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.
Utility earnings rose 5.0% in Q1, slightly above our 4.9% estimate. No companies changed guidance for 2019 but the same companies that disappointed at year end had issues again such as AGR, CNP, and NI (not EVRG, phew). Earnings quality stuck out to us as weak with tax or other gains driving numbers at SRE, DUK, NRG among others. AEP may have been the most incrementally positive with increasing confidence in the upper half of their 5-7% growth rate. Mega project risk continued to overhang D and DUK (ACP) and SRE (more Cameron delays), though SO kept Vogtle on schedule (for now). Finally, weak renewables conditions hurt in Q1 causing misses at AGR, CWEN, and NEP, but the influence of renewables keeps accelerating overall.
AEP’s 1Q19 results of $1.19 beat consensus of $1.11, possibly on a one-time item and timing of tax benefit. AEP reaffirmed 2019 guidance of $4.00-4.20 vs consensus of $4.12 and WRs of $4.10. Management also reaffirmed their LT EPS growth of 5-7% (off $3.85 in 2018) and again noted that they would be disappointed if EPS growth were not in the top half of that target. Our new 2022E implies 6.6% EPS growth. AEP stock outpaced the UTY by about 50bp and is beating it by 300bp YTD. We like AEP’s transmission growth story, absence of major project overhang and solid EPS/div growth. Regulated renewables opportunities in OH and PSO/SWEPCo would be upside to our estimates. We believe AEP could trade at a one-turn premium to the average regulated P/E. AEP trades at 18.2x on 2021E vs the group average of 18.0x. Reiterate our Outperform.
Our Q1 investor poll shows investors remain underweight utilities even after the sector has already underperformed by 700bps YTD. The poll has eerily similar results compared to our year ahead poll. Only 22% expect utilities to outperform for the rest of 2019 (down from 29%) and 54% expect them to underperform (up from 51%). There is roughly the same preference of midstream vs utilities (60%/40% vs 62%/38%). Power remains the preferred sector within the space (52% overweight vs 53% last poll) followed by Regulateds (43% overweight vs 52%) and then Yieldcos at the bottom (25% overweight vs 33%). Most investors (59%) expect interest rates to stay in the 2.5%-3.0% area though a lot less see rates rising back over 3% (only 5% vs 22% at last poll).
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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