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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FE posted 2Q19 adjusted EPS of $0.61 – just ahead of consensus/us at $0.59/0.60, and the midpoint of $0.55-0.65 guidance. Relative to $0.62 last year, Q2 was driven by transmission rate base and lower O&M/ taxes; offset by much milder weather and a one-time OH court ruling benefit last year.
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.
This morning (6/19/2019), the OH Supreme Court issued a 4-3 ruling ordering the removal of FE’s distribution modernization rider (DMR) from customer rates. The majority found that in authorizing the DMR, the Public Utilities Commission of OH (PUCO) “failed to place any conditions on the additional funds that would allow the rider to act as an incentive”. Our understanding is that the order is effective immediately, with the DMR benefit ended only on a prospective basis. FE’s $132.5M/yr (post-tax) DMR was originally put into place to help keep its balance sheet healthy while enabling grid mod investment. AES $83M/yr (post-tax) DMR was specifically put in place to de-lever DPL in order to allow for a financially stable utility (prev junk rated). Both have extension requests pending, but only AES embeds approval within its forward guidance.
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.
Now that FE has become fully regulated and FES is nearly in the rearview (pending likely bankruptcy emergence later this year), a number of investors are looking at the company for the first time. By far the number one question we get on FE is how to think about its earned ROEs. Investors are focused on whether FE is over-earning in OH/PA and what the regulatory risks are. In this note, we get into the nitty gritty of earned ROE calculations in these two states. We see supportive regulatory regimes and ROEs that are manageable.
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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