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.
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Utilities rose only 0.9% in April, while the market rallied another 3.9%. Utilities are now underperforming the market by roughly 670bps YTD; they have given back their entire 2018 outperformance. So, what should investors do now? The stock market rally in 2019 is becoming historic - this is only the 3rd time in the last 40 years the S&P 500 rose more than 15% in the first 4 months. One of them ended badly - the 1987 crash during which utilities outperformed. The other year was 1983 - the market flattened out the rest of the year while utilities continued to underperform. We also looked at years where utilities underperformed 650bps or more in the first 4 months as well. This has happened 16 times in the last 40 years. Interestingly, 10 of those 16 years utilities continued to underperform into year-end by an overall average of 200bps.
FE is continuing on the path of its first year as a fully regulated utility, after recently navigating a small hiccup in the FES process. Going forward, we see limited incremental risk from FES. Meanwhile, FE yields close to 4% and targets above-average EPS growth, supported by low-risk T&D utilities. We’re increasing our Price Target to $47 on higher group multiples (using about an average). Trading at over a two-turn discount, FE looks attractive. 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).
The bankruptcy judge rejected the current FES reorg on the issue of FE waiver from future environmental liability. EPA was challenging this for coal plant remediation costs. The judge encouraged that this get worked out and did not seem to have any interest in reopening the whole agreement. We think this issue likely gets settled out in the next few weeks. FES bonds barely moved so they do not appear concerned about it. The broad waiver may have been a reach to get, but the chances FE has any meaningful liabilities out of FES coal remediation are very low. This is a buying opportunity. Reiterate Outperform and $45 target.
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.
FE finished the day underperforming the group modestly after rallying into the close. We received a number of inbounds searching for answers, but saw no major concerns in the year-end update. In fact, this was probably the shortest and most straightforward earnings call in as long as we can recall. With the stock still trading at over a two-turn discount and above-average 6-8% EPS growth intact, we see further re-rating potential. Outperform.
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.
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.
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