Utilities: Is a sector-shaking pile-up coming?

Nothing has been able to halt a historic utilities sector rally since mid-2015, but when will the music stop?

Travis Miller 8 July, 2016 | 5:00PM
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U.S. utilities are up 18% year-to-date through mid-June, far exceeding the returns for any other sector. Another jump in early June leaves the sector up 26% since last June, among the best trailing 12-month returns for the sector in at least the past 25 years. And with the U.S. Federal Reserve seemingly content to maintain a near-zero interest rate policy, the rally might continue. Utilities' dividend yields are exceedingly attractive relative to long-term bond yields.

We think deal activity in the sector is both a product of and a cause of the high valuations in a low-interest-rate world. In the sector's latest deal,  Great Plains (GXP) proposed buying  Westar (WR) for mostly cash at a 50% premium to our fair value and an implied 25 times our projected 2017 earnings. Five of the seven largest U.S.-based utilities have a pending acquisition or recently closed one. Six utilities we cover have agreed to an acquisition proposal that could close in the next 12 months. Other utilities are adjusting their portfolios with cash-fueled asset sales and purchases.

Mid-cap utilities in constructive and fundamentally attractive markets are prime targets. We wouldn't be surprised to see firms like  Alliant Energy (LNT),  CMS Energy (CMS),  New Jersey Resources (NJR) or  Portland General (POR) entertain suitors. All of them already appear to enjoy an M&A premium, trading at valuation multiples above their peers, dividend yields below their peers, and 20%-30% above our fair value estimates. However, the sector is running out of big fish, and European utilities aren't likely to look West like they did a decade ago given their own cash constraints at home.

So when will the music stop? A sudden and unexpected rise in interest rates could bring a sharp near-term correction. However, history shows that utilities produce fairly steady total returns over three- to five-year periods regardless of how interest rates move. A long-term concern always is capricious regulation. We think electricity demand will slow to just half of the U.S. real GDP rate during the next decade. As utilities invest in renewable energy, distributed generation and new technology, they will have to rely more heavily on regulators to increase customer rates. That is never popular.

European utilities continue to struggle managing nationalist policies primarily focused on reducing carbon emissions and figuring out a place for nuclear. We think the market is overly punishing  Électricité de France (EDF) for uncertainty related to its huge nuclear fleet and plans for uneconomic new nuclear construction.  RWE (RWE) and  E.ON (EONGY) continue to struggle with the market's concerns about their corporate splits, government oversight of nuclear decommissioning funding and potential forced coal plant shutdowns. Dividend cuts worry the market even more. But for investors willing to wait for the market overreaction to fade, we think these three have attractive upside. The Brexit market sell-off offers another opportunity to pick up European utilities cheaply since we don't expect utilities businesses in the United Kingdom to feel any long-term effects from the move out of the European Union.

Top picks

 Électricité de France (EDF)
Star Rating: 5 Stars
Economic Moat: None
Fair Value Estimate: EUR 17
Fair Value Uncertainty: High
Consider Buying: EUR 10.20

With EDF trading near EUR 10 per share, we think the downside is priced in and a likely rally is ahead if EDF announces it will abandon the Hinkley Point C new nuclear project. The project has become a head-scratching nightmare of delays, design issues, wildly out-of-market economics and a scramble for funding, including a dividend cut this year and, we think, a likely dividend cut next year. Brexit adds more uncertainty. We now believe the project will be a EUR 1-2 per share value drag if it goes forward, and we think the market is pricing in even more downside. EDF is more attractive without Hinkley, and a new carbon mechanism in France will help unlock that value.

Star Rating: 4 Stars
Economic Moat: None
Fair Value Estimate: EUR 18.00
Fair Value Uncertainty: High
Consider Buying: EUR 9.00

Germany's RWE is one of the largest electricity and gas suppliers and power generators in Europe but has plans to split the business in 2016. RWE will hold the suffering conventional generation and commodities businesses while spinning off its stable, growing renewable energy, retail supply and distribution grid businesses. We expect weak energy markets to persist at least through 2017. Our sum-of-the-parts analysis values legacy RWE at EUR 3 per share and the spin-off at EUR 15 per share. On a consolidated basis, we expect trough EUR 5.1 billion EBITDA in 2017, primarily due to the drop in conventional generation earnings from renewable energy growth, high gas prices and capacity overbuild. Management has cut back investment in renewable energy, but we still expect that segment to grow modestly, especially if RWE International can raise cheap equity capital following the spin-off. We continue to watch how RWE and the German government resolve concerns about funding some EUR 10 billion of present-value nuclear decommissioning liabilities.

 Calpine (CPN)
Star Rating: 4 Stars
Economic Moat: None
Fair Value Estimate: US$20.00
Fair Value Uncertainty: High
Consider Buying: US$12.00

Calpine is uniquely positioned among independent power producers as the industry's predominant natural gas generator, with the most efficient fleet in the U.S. This allows Calpine to benefit from tightening supply-demand conditions in the power markets and low gas prices across Texas, California and the Mid-Atlantic. All of Calpine's operating regions are struggling to provide market incentives for new-build expansion and pending emissions regulations that will take significant coal plant capacity offline throughout the U.S. We expect this to create supply constraints across Calpine's core operating regions, allowing it to capture significant margin expansion independent of natural gas prices. We forecast US$840 million free cash flow before growth in 2016 -- an effective 16% yield.

More quarter-end insights

Stock market outlook: A year of contradictions

Basic materials: Recent commodity rallies leave few opportunities

Consumer cyclical: Market underestimating apparel and e-commerce

Consumer defensive: Not a lot to feast on

Energy: Supply glut continues, but some respite on pricing

Financial services: Accounting for Brexit and the fiduciary rule

Healthcare: Stock selection increasingly important

Industrials: Valuations stretched, but opportunities still exist

Tech & telecom: We see opportunities in Apple and Microsoft

Real estate: 'Safety' becomes more expensive

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About Author

Travis Miller

Travis Miller  Travis Miller is an energy and utilities strategist for Morningstar.

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