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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.
Utilities eked out a small 0.5% gain for 2018 on the heels of a massive Q4 rally as the market turned decidedly defensive ending the year down 6.2%. Utilities 670bps outperformance came despite a lot of headwinds on the group including higher interest rates (10-yr up 23bps), lack of tax reform benefits, over $15B of equity issuance, and the CA fires impact. Investors were looking for any place to hide and utilities fit the bill especially given their lack of exposure to tariffs and recession fears. Utilities came in second among income sectors for the year trailing only Pharma which was up 5.2%. Interestingly, all other income sectors underperformed the market in 2018 (see Exhibit 1). We remain cautious on utilities going into 2019 given their heavy dependence on a negative macro call and very high relative valuations (20% adjusted P/E premium vs the historic avg of 3%). In our view, buying defensive sectors at historically large premiums is not defensive.
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.
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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