A low-cost, high-yielding utilities sector ETF

In a low-rate environment, this large, liquid ETF, which holds the biggest U.S. utilities firms, could offer some appeal.

Robert Goldsborough 27 October, 2015 | 5:00PM
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For investors seeking broad exposure to defensive, high-yielding United States utilities companies,  Utilities Select Sector SPDR (XLU) is a strong, appealing option. This low-cost exchange-traded fund contains only stable mid- and large-cap U.S. utilities firms, as it only holds companies that are included in the S&P 500. The fund follows a market-cap-weighting scheme, where larger companies tend to hold more sway. Over time, that has led to mixed performance. During periods when large- and mid-cap names outperform smaller-cap ones, this fund does better than an equal-weight option, while during periods where small- and mid-cap names tend to outperform larger utilities names, an equal-weight utilities ETF would perform better.

XLU tracks the Utilities Sector Select Index, investing in all 29 utilities companies in the S&P 500. Holdings include regulated utilities, diversified utilities and unregulated power generators. Electric utilities represent 56.5% of the portfolio, but diversified utilities also have meaningful weight (almost 40%). Independent power producers and energy traders and gas utilities, respectively, account for 2% and 1.5% of the portfolio. Because of its limited number of holdings, the portfolio is highly concentrated. The top 10 holdings soak up more than 60% of the fund's assets.

Many utilities firms are known for their reliability and income generation. This ETF is suitable as a satellite holding for a diversified equity portfolio, given that the U.S. utilities sector makes up only about 3% of the S&P 500. The fund also can serve as a tactical bet on low interest rates and long-term growth in electricity demand.

Like most ETFs that invest in utilities companies, XLU pays a healthy yield. The fund's yield is currently 3.8%, and during the past few years it has averaged around 4%.

Before 2000, most investors viewed the utilities sector solely as a reliable, income-generating space, one that wasn't necessarily known for price appreciation. That all changed with the new millennium and the beginning of a long decline in interest rates that unquestionably broadened utilities companies' investor base. Over the longer term, in a rising-rate environment, investors should expect flat returns at best for utilities companies and underperformance compared with other equity sectors. Higher rates generally make fixed-income instruments more attractive on a relative basis and make bond-like equities, such as utilities companies, less attractive.

This ETF's volatility of return of 13.8% for the past 10 years is lower than the S&P 500's standard deviation of 14.9%. This fund has been less volatile than the broader market because of the sector's generally stable cash flows and lower sensitivity to economic cycles.

Because dividends are such a major part of the story for utilities investors, it's worth discussing the outlook for payout ratios. There is no wholesale threat to dividends across the sector. Given strong company fundamentals, Morningstar's equity analysts forecast a sector average payout of 60% for 2015--in line with historical averages (the sector's average payout for 2014 was 57%). Also, with sustainable payout ratios, they believe that dividends could grow as much as 5% annually. That's above the sector's median 3% earnings growth during the past three years.

Dynamics that utilities-sector investors should watch closely include continued low electricity demand because of improved energy efficiency of appliances and light bulbs, the impact of low natural gas prices on higher-cost coal and nuclear plants (and broadly, on unregulated power producers), and new environmental regulation, which could result in coal plant closures, reduced emissions and increased capital investments. In the medium term, new environmental regulation could have the effect of taking plants off line, causing higher power prices and boosting diversified utilities and independent power generators during the next five to 10 years.

Consolidation continues to be a trend as utilities seek opportunities to invest capital and achieve cost synergies. Notable recent deals are  Exelon's (EXC) proposal to acquire  Pepco Holdings (POM),  WEC Energy Group's (WEC) acquisition of Integrys Energy,  NextEra Energy's (NEE) proposal to buy  Hawaiian Electric Industries (HE), Emera's (EMA) proposed acquisition of  TECO Energy (TE), and  Southern's (SO) proposed acquisition of  AGL Resources (GAS). Some acquisitors are paying very high valuations for their targets; persistently low costs of capital are allowing acquisitors to pay huge premiums while still making deals earnings-accretive. (Recent deals have priced in costs of capital at below 6%, so deals have been value-accretive.) Separately, some utilities are trying to shed their commodity exposure after several years of lackluster power generation margins.  Duke Energy (DUK) recently sold its Midwest power generation fleet, and  PPL (PPL) spun off its merchant generation unit.

Our analysts assign most regulated utilities narrow Morningstar Economic Moat Ratings, as they have reliable cash flow streams and some monopoly-like characteristics but also are subject to regulators. Our analysts assign no moat to unregulated utilities, which are commodity power producers with no differentiated characteristics.

The fund charges a reasonable 0.14% expense ratio. Both the fund and its holdings are liquid, which keeps its bid-ask spread tight and minimizes deviations from net asset value. State Street engages in share lending, the practice of lending out the fund's underlying shares in exchange for a fee. It passes about 85% of the gross proceeds to investors, which partially offsets the fund's expenses.

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Robert Goldsborough

Robert Goldsborough  Robert Goldsborough is an analyst covering equity strategies on Morningstar’s manager research team.

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