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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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.
While NextEra’s analyst day was an upbeat event overall, we thought that the story on NEP was the highlight. The distribution growth outlook was extended to 2024 with cushion from the embedded potential growth as well as the macro tailwinds of continued renewables penetration in the US. We are not aware of another income vehicle with NEP’s visible distribution growth potential and duration – 12-15% through at least 2024 – with such a strong parent and exposure to the significant growth from renewables. We reiterate our Outperform rating.
We expect NEE to follow what has been a successful playbook from the last few meetings. This will likely include an extension of the 6%-8% growth rate another year, to 2022, and a deep dive into the factors driving that growth. NEE is verging on being the first US utility to hit a $100B market cap and we doubt there are few companies that size with 8% growth visibility for the next 3-5 years. We also view NEP as an under the radar way to be exposed to record renewables growth alongside the best renewables developer. We reiterate Outperform on NEE/NEP and raise our NEE PT to $210 from $200.
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.
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.
NEP shares underperformed the group by 1.9% on the day after reporting a weaker than expected Q1 from extremely poor wind conditions. Despite this the full year outlook remains on track, especially with the increased certainty from the recent asset dropdown. We are not aware of another income vehicle with the distribution growth potential and duration of NEP – 12-15% through at least 2023 – with such a strong parent. We reiterate our Outperform rating.
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