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Executives

Steven Cave - Managing Director, IR

John Somerhalder - Chairman, President and CEO

Andrew Evans - EVP and CFO

Doug Schantz - President of Sequent Energy Management

Analysts

Barry Klein - Citigroup

Mike Hank

Eric Beaumont - Copa Capital

AGL Resources Inc., (AGL) Q1 2009 Earnings Call April 29, 2009 4:00 PM ET

Operator

Good day, and welcome to the First Quarter 2009 AGL Resources Earning Conference Call. My name is Candace and I will be your coordinator for today. At this time all participants are in a listen only mode. After management's remarks, we will conduct a Q&A session. (Operator Instructions) And a coordinator will be happy to assist you.

I would now like to turn the presentation over to your host, Mr. Steven Cave, Managing Director, Investor Relations. Sir, you may proceed.

Steven Cave

Okay. Thank you, Candace, and good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us today to review our first quarter 2009 results. The speakers on the call today will be John Somerhalder, our Chairman, President and CEO, Andrew Evans, our Executive Vice President and CFO.

As always, we have several other members of our management team here with us to answer questions following the prepared remarks. As you know, we issued our earnings release and filed our Form 10-Q this morning, before the market opened. If you don't have copies of those documents, you can find those on our website.

Before we move to the prepared remarks, let me just remind you that we will be making some forward-looking statements today as part of our presentation and that our actual results could differ materially from those projected in the forward-looking statements. The various factors that could cause such a material difference are included in our press release and in our 10-Q and are more fully described in our most recent 10-K filing.

We also used some non-GAAP measures in describing our business and a reconciliation of those measures to the GAAP financial measures is available in our earnings release and SEC filings and on our Web site.

So we'll begin today's call with some prepared remarks, and then we'll open the line to take your questions.

And with that I'll turn it over to John.

John Somerhalder

Thanks Steve and good afternoon. We had the chance to see many of you at our Analyst Meeting just a couple of weeks ago. And look forward to seeing some of you at the AGL financial forum this weekend. We'll keep our comments brief today and just focus on the highlights and the major variances year-over-year.

Today we reported earnings of $1.55 per diluted share for the quarter compared to $1.16 per diluted share for the first quarter of 2008. We had very good performance during the quarter from our utilities as well as from our wholesale and retail businesses, and these results position us well for the balance of the year.

Let me just summarize a few of the key points for the quarter before I turn it over to Drew for the financial highlights. First, Sequent stands out as one of the headlines for the quarter, with significant gains on the storage and transportation hedges relative to the same period last year. Sequent has continued to see strong commercial activity, and we feel good about how we started the year and how it positions us for the remainder of the year.

It is important to realize, however, that because a portion of the first quarter earnings are related to the hedges on our transportation capacity. Our reported results could experience some volatility associated with those hedges over the next few quarters, as market prices continue to fluctuate.

The bottom line is that as we discussed at the analyst meeting, we still are projecting the wholesale services segment to be in the $45 million EBIT range, and that's the same range that we discussed a couple of weeks ago at the analyst meeting. Our utility continues to focus on the fundamentals through affected cost reduction and aggressive management of our controllable expenses.

That includes bad debt expense, which remains consistent with our expectations. We also saw some uplift from the storage carrying charges paid to Atlanta gaslight by the marketers in Georgia particularly as flowing gas prices declined significantly and marketers continued to hold higher levels of inventory in storage during the period.

Higher pipeline replacement revenues in Georgia was another significant driver of results for the quarter relative to last year. Importantly, as we discussed in our analyst meeting, we are focused on executing our regulatory strategy to ensure recovery of our infrastructure investments, and our other prudently incurred expenses. We are well underway with our rate case in New Jersey. We are still early in the process and mainly responding to data requests, but we will have more detail to share with you on that case a little later in the year.

We have some positive news in New Jersey. In just a couple of days after our analyst meeting, and that's related to our utility infrastructure enhancement filing, you may recall, along with the other utilities in New Jersey, that we filed a proposal to accelerate replacement of some pipeline infrastructure in our service area over a two-year period. That was in response to Governor Corzine's request that utility support his economic stimulus plan for the state.

The New Jersey Board of public utilities approved our proposal on April 16. We will essentially be accelerating about $60 million of infrastructure projects between now and April 01, 2011. These are projects we already had planned to complete over a longer time horizon, but accelerating these investments will help the state's economy by creating bout 65 new jobs. We will recover the cost of these investments in the near-term through our cost recovery rider on customers' monthly bills; and in the longer term, we expect them to be rolled into our rate base as part of our normal rate making process.

Turning to SouthStar, we saw improved results there year-over-year, as we saw improvements in the Ohio and Florida markets. We continue to see increased competition in the Georgia market from more active customer price shopping and the move toward lower margin fixed price plans. And Drew will discuss that impact in more detail in a minute.

As I said at the analyst meeting, we continue to make very good progress towards completion of our utility and non-utility capital projects, including Golden Triangle Storage in Texas, Hampton Roads Crossing in Virginia and the Magnolia project in Georgia. I won't spend much more time on those unless you have specific questions.

We believe these results put us in a very strong position to be able to achieve our earnings guidance for 2009, which is in the range of $2.65 to $2.75 per share.

With that, I will turn it to Drew for the financial discussion.

Andrew Evans

Thanks, John, and good afternoon, everyone. I'm going to cover a few of the major segment variances for the quarter, and then we can go into your questions.

In the distribution segment, operating margin was $4 million better than last year. And as John said, two of the main drivers there were gas storage carrying costs and pipeline replacement revenues. Gas storage carrying costs were $3 million higher than in the first quarter of last year, and pipeline replacement revenue was up about $2 million. Also we had customer growth in Virginia and New Jersey as compared to last year, but this was more than offset by lower customer growth at Atlanta Gas Light and lower customer usage in New Jersey and Tennessee.

On a consolidated basis, our utility customer growth was just slightly negative, down 3,000 customers year-over-year on a total base of about 2.3 million.

Operating expenses and distribution were down $2 million from last year, and that was largely a function of tighter control and outside services and other costs. I just want to point out that this savings is significant given the fact that we're faced with higher depreciation in pension expense this year that we talked about with you in the last couple of months.

To John's earlier point, we continue to monitor bad debt expense closely, but to date we have not seen any trends that are outside the range of our expectations. Also in our utility business, we have very little sensitivity to the downturn in the industrial sector, as only about 5% of our total utility margin is generated from industrial customers across our six utilities.

I want to make this point, as I know many of you are tracking this trend closely, and it's important to keep in mind that we have very little exposure relative to some of the others in the LDC sector.

In the retail segment, there are several moving parts that net out to a slight improvement in operating margin relative to last year. We saw improved margin in Ohio and Florida, about $3 million higher than last year. In Georgia, we had a significant improvement of about $14 million margin from decreasing commodity prices and higher customer usage. But that was offset by $12 million decline in our margin, from lower customer account change in our customer mix amongst our retail pricing plans.

Average customer count during the first quarter was down about 3% relative to last year, which is largely due to a more competitive market that we've been seeing in Georgia more recently. We also have continued to see a trend of customers more aggressively shopping for competitive pricing plans and moving more toward fixed price plans. These are plans that are typically lower-margin plans for SouthStar.

We also marked our inventory down to market as required by GAAP, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which will show up as lower cost of goods sold in future periods.

In the wholesale services segment, as John pointed out, we had a significant improvement in year-over-year results, and that largely reflects hedge gains on our transportation and storage positions, as 9X gas prices declined and transportation basis spreads narrowed during this period. These positives were offset by an $8 million lower cost of market inventory adjustment during the period as gas prices declined relative to our weighted average inventory costs.

Underlying these moving parts is a 15% increase in commercial activity year-over-year, very positive outcome. You can see the specific components of operating margin for wholesale on page 30 of the 10-Q.

Operating expenses at the wholesale segment were up $7 million relative to last year. That's largely a function of [loans] accrual at the segment, which is [programatic] based on earnings and results.

Turning to the energy investment segment, EBIT was down $3 million in the first quarter relative to the prior-year period. That decrease reflects just slightly lower operating margins for the Jefferson Island Storage in AGL Networks, as well as higher operating expenses related to legal costs at Jefferson Island and higher property tax and depreciation expense for Golden Triangle.

Two other items that I'd like to focus on are pension and liquidity. As we disclosed in the 10-Q, we made a pension contribution of $14 million for the first quarter of 2009 and expect to make additional contributions of $18 million in this year, for a total of $32 million. We previously had expected to make up to $68 million in pension contributions this year. That's what we talked about in our year-end call.

However, the IRS pension relief granted earlier this year lowered our expected contributions as it resulted in the use of a discount rate that was higher than what we had in our previous estimate.

So as a result, our funding requirements to maintain current benefit levels are lower than we had originally anticipated.

With respect to credit and liquidity, we continue to pay down short-term debt during the first quarter, as inventories liquidated and receivables are collected. We have no outstanding borrowings under our credit facility as of the end of the first quarter. Our outstanding commercial paper borrowings at the end of the quarter were about $335 million.

We'll continue to build inventory on behalf of our utility customers, but we're doing it at prices now that are one-third of what they were last year. This is certainly good for our liquidity and good for our customers.

We continue to have good access to the commercial paper markets and continue to be comfortable with our liquidity for the balance of 2009. Those are the major drivers for the quarter. We're enthusiastic about our performance so far in a strong start to the year. With respect to guidance, I would just like to add to John's comments that we prefer to stay a bit conservative when we've only got one quarter behind us. You may have seen others in our space that have made adjustments to guidance recently, but keep in mind that some of them are six months into their fiscal year rather than three, like we are, and they have full winter seasons built into their results already.

With that, we'll go to your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you, sir? (Operator Instructions) Our first question will come from the line of Barry Klein of Citigroup.

Barry Klein - Citigroup

How's it going, guys?

Andrew Evans

Hey, Barry.

Barry Klein - Citigroup

Hi. Just a quick question on the New Jersey rate case, you have got that accelerated recovery on the infrastructure. So it's just a return on the capital you put in; not a return on that capital, right? It's just a dollar for dollar return; is that, am I looking at it right?

John Somerhalder

No. I'll let Hank answer that.

Andrew Evans

Thanks. John, Barry, that also includes a return with a 10% ROI, attached to it. So it's a return of the investment and on it.

Barry Klein - Citigroup

Okay. And then after two years, then you'd have to put it into rate base and go through a rate filing for that?

John Somerhalder

It just depends on where we would, it would be sort of open for a future rate case. At this time it would be undetermined. We'd just continue to earn at the level that it was set in the order that came out from the BPU until a future case, and the BPU's anticipation would be those costs would be rolled into a future case whenever that happens.

Barry Klein - Citigroup

I got you. Okay. Thanks a lot.

John Somerhalder

Thanks Barry.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Our next question will come from the line of [Mike Hank]. Please proceed.

Mike Hank

Hi. Good afternoon. I am calling from (Inaudible) Capital, I was just wondering if you could just call out, what were the unique legal expenses in the quarter? I assume that's been a little bit of a drag for you all, the Jefferson Island, and maybe you could give a little bit of an update on some of the special projects that you have going, like Golden Triangle and Magnolia, because seems like a lot of other companies in your group are getting a lot of credit for future projects that are coming online, and you guys have some interesting things going on as well.

John Somerhalder

Yeah, Mike, I would be glad to do that. First on the legal expenses, and the legal expense we referenced that impact us really fit in the CATEGORY of Jefferson Island. That is a project, the expansion of Jefferson Island, that we are doing everything we need to get back on track so that we can expand that facility. We feel good about our position right now, and we're moving towards, if we litigate it, a court date later this year in the third quarter. We are in the process now of attempting to settle that with the state and believe that that is also a very good possibility. One of those two ways, we believe, will get that project back on track. But in the interim period, we have legal expenses related to depositions in that case.

Mike Hank

And what sort of magnitude is that, are the legal expenses?

Andrew Evans

I think a million dollars in the period.

Mike Hank

And remind me, what's the nature of what you need to settle.

John Somerhalder

The issue that we need to settle is that we have a brining lease that we were moving forward under that brining lease, and we planned to leach two new Caverns. We have Caverns one and two, we planned to leach caverns three and four. And we have rights under that mineral lease to leach those caverns. About 2.5 years ago, the state challenged our rights to brine or mine that salt from those two caverns under that mineral lease. We think we have a very good position, that we continue to have rights under that lease to brine and to form those Caverns. So the litigation is related to our rights under that brining lease. Now we separately have a lease with existing operation of the facilities, and that lease covers the current operation.

Mike Hank

Okay. And then, in terms of Golden Triangle, that seems like it's pretty much on schedule?

John Somerhalder

Yes. Golden Triangle is going well. It is on schedule, we are now anticipating having, we drilled cavern. We started the leaching process here about 50 days ago. We anticipate that we'll have that cavern in service around the third quarter. And then cavern two would be in service around?

Andrew Evans

The third quarter of 2010.

John Somerhalder

About third quarter of 2010.

Andrew Evans

And then the second cavern would be 2012.

John Somerhalder

I'm sorry. The first cavern, I didn't state. The third quarter of 2010 for the first cavern. And then two years later for that.

Mike Hank

Okay. Which cavern is bigger, the first one or the second one?

John Somerhalder

Those both are designed to be the same size, roughly 6 BCF.

Mike Hank

Okay. And some of the other companies in your sector have had to delay projects just because of the natural gas environment. And I believe most of those have been pipeline related projects. But do you still see pretty good, actually with gas prices where they are, it seems like any kind of storage project would be a good one, but you don't see any reduction in the need for this type of project?

John Somerhalder

No. Related to our projects, one we see power generation, natural gas needed for power generation to be as strong as ever. And in this carbon constrained world, we see increased pressure on natural gas, especially with the delay of new coal plants, time periods on nuclear plants. Also in a time period where we'll see some LNG move into our space, and it looks like it will come in this year, that adds value for high deliverability storage. Not only to take gas out of storage, but put gas into storage when we have cargoes of LNG come in. and we have recently seen a strengthening in the summer-winter spreads the value, the intrinsic values of the storage.

So all of those fundamentals point to a good position for our storage projects. So we are very much on track with caverns one and two at Golden Triangle, and we also have the two facilities at Jefferson Island that are functioning well, performing well; and as we just mentioned, we are working hard to get caverns three and four and that expansion project back on track. Because that facility is right at the Henry Hub, and the fundamentals are even stronger there.

So the fundamentals look real good. And just to finish the answer to your question, we also have two pipeline projects that we're moving full speed ahead on. One is up in Virginia, Hampton Roads Crossing that’s about 140, a little over $140 million project. That project is scheduled to be in service on schedule and on budget by November of this year, that time period, and we plan to have Magnolia pipeline which will bring additional LNG from Elba Island into the Georgia market. That's only about a $50 million project, a little less than $50 million project. But we remain on track there to have that online about in that same time period, November to the end of this year.

Mike Hank

That's great. And those would be going into rate base? I can't remember, if those are in the regulated part of the business or the unregulated?

John Somerhalder

They're all different. Golden Triangle is not. Even though it's FERC regulated, it's under market based rates. The Hampton Roads Crossing project, some of that project is associated with providing service for our customers at Virginia natural gas, and that part of the project, little over $100 million will be in the rate base, so it will be regulated. The remainder of that project was built to provide services to two other utilities, Dominion and Columbia.

They will charge incremental rates still under regulation there in Virginia. But it's out of our rate base, and so that project will look very much like a state regulated project, even though some of the revenue comes from our customers; some comes from two other regulated utilities in the state. Related to Magnolia, the pipeline in Georgia, that project will be included in our gas supply plan and in our gas supply cost and will recover the dollars there under the gas cost in Georgia, and that is a FERC regulated pipeline. So the return will be in the range of a FERC regulated interstate power or interstate pipeline.

Mike Hank

Okay. You guys have had a lot of regulatory lag the last few years, which you now have a lot of rate cases filed, which is exciting. These two projects, Hampton and magnolia, were you collecting anything in terms of riders or AFUDC or anything like that for those two projects, or has that been kind of a drag on your performance as well that will unwind as you get these things into service?

John Somerhalder

You are right. in the past, where we were in a long-term rate stay-outs and continuing to still prudently invest in our business, it's very good now to be moving to rate cases. But we've tried to position ourselves and we've been very effective at positioning ourselves so that future capital investments do not have that same regulatory lag. In many cases as an example the Hampton Roads project, we collect AFUDC on that project. So that avoids the regulatory lag. The project Magnolia, as soon as that's in service, we'll put it in our gas costs. So we'll have immediate recovery there, and the project we mentioned earlier, as an example, the infrastructure project in New Jersey, there we'll get coverage immediately through the rider, and we'll continue to get that coverage until we roll it into rate-base. So that allows us to avoid the regulatory lag there. So for all those reasons, the more regular filing, the rate cases and all the programs I just mentioned, we're in a much better position to avoid that regulatory lag and have real-time recovery of our investments in the regulated business.

Mike Hank

Okay. Thank you very much for your time.

Steven Cave

Thanks, Mike.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Our next question will come from the [Eric Beaumont of Copa Capital].

Eric Beaumont - Copa Capital

Good afternoon, guys.

Steven Cave

Hi Eric.

Eric Beaumont - Copa Capital

Just had a couple real quick things. First is there anything you can say about the Piedmont lawsuit with regards to SouthStar?

John Somerhalder

The good news is Piedmont and AGL Resources have a very good partnership. We're good partners, have aligned interest in that business. But there is a right under the current agreement, an option for us to buy the other 30%, and there is a dispute on that one issue as to whether that right goes away at the end of this year or whether that continues on. I think both parties want that resolved, so we can plan our business, and we're in the process now that to get that resolved legally. So I think we're both in agreement, it needs to be resolved. We obviously have, on that one issue have, two different positions.

Eric Beaumont - Copa Capital

Yeah. So aside from basically [inaudile] whether it has to be done this year or goes into perpetuity, there's no other intention from your partners; that's obviously been a good partnership the way it worked out with you and Piedmont.

John Somerhalder

They're a very good partner. Their interests are aligned. It's a business that we both have aligned interest and believe in, so at this point, I know of no other intension.

Eric Beaumont - Copa Capital

Okay. Great. And the other thing, just on the reported hedge gains for the hedge transportation capacity, should we think of those as reversing throughout the rest of the year, as there is a need on that transportation, or is that really kind of a just onetime gain that is now realized?

Doug Schantz

Well, this is Doug Schantz. Obviously, bases will move over the future. It may reverse out, it may get bigger. It's hard to predict. But the volatile situation as it relates to basis and hedge gains. We wouldn't expect all of it to be passed back this year, but that's just based on our expectations for the market and we can't predict that.

Unidentified Company Representative

If anything, it's a bit of an acceleration of earnings that we made, just would not have been normally reported under GAAP. We think of these as transportation agreements where we have sublet that transportation in a profitable way, and the value of that transportation has declined since we sold it to that third party, and we're just marking the difference.

John Somerhalder

To add a little bit more definition to that, I mean, one of my earlier statements talked about the movement in gas prices or in basis. As one example, the basis out of Iraq, which part of this transportation is based on the hedges are based on, what we typically see is that basis move, and it gets narrower in the winter. Basis tends to expand out in the summer when the loads in the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies go down. So the basis moves out. That would move these hedge positions more out of the money but then later in the year, when we get into the fourth quarter tends to move the other direction and we see the hedge gains come back. But that's just based on historical performance. We can't predict exactly what it will do this year. But there is the chance, as the basis moves, as we just described, that we will see some movement from quarter-to-quarter.

Eric Beaumont - Copa Capital

No. That's great. I was just trying to figure out what contract duration that, if there was basically depending on the length of the contract or how it was booked, if it was something that within a act as more of a physical for delivery even though transportation contract or if it’s just open and does float with the basis. I appreciate the color. Thank you.

John Somerhalder

Thanks Eric.

Operator

We have a follow-up question from the line of Mike Hank. You may proceed.

Mike Hank

Yeah. Just with gas prices, natural gas prices being lower, will that free up a lot of capital for you? Because I would assume you have to put margin upon hedges at much higher gas prices. Do you have any idea in terms of how much capital that will free up for you this year?

Andrew Evans

Sure. Mike, this is Drew. We built about 90 million cubic feet of gas on behalf of customers and at Sequent last year. About 85% of that customer is actually for utility customers. And so we built almost $1 billion worth of inventory last year. The weight COG was about $10, weighted average cost of gas. We have got about 40 Bcf in the ground; will build another 50 Bcf over the course of the summer, same volume as last year. We'll be building it at, $3.50. I think our plan; we had anticipated something more like 750. But we probably don't have more than about $250 million worth of gas to put into the ground. That will represent a very significant difference in our capital requirements year-over-year.

Mike Hank

And then, in terms of CapEx for your projects, how much is that for the year?

Andrew Evans

A little over $500 million in aggregate, so about less than a hundred million dollars more than what we actually generate in cash from the businesses.

Mike Hank

Okay.

Doug Schantz

We'll see a large cash repatriation from storage and a little bit of that will be used for CapEx.

John Somerhalder

This is a peak year for us because of the timing on Golden Triangle, with the Hampton Roads project, the Magnolia project, and then the upside of being able to invest in our utility infrastructure, as an example, in New Jersey. All of that resulted in a higher or peak year this year relative to past years or planned future years.

Mike Hank

That's a great point. Of that, as John just described, it's non-recurring. It's not something that we'll see again in 2010, once Magnolia and HRX are completed this year that's the end of that spend.

Mike Hank

Okay. And some of the filings are old analyst notes. I read some commentary about a project called triple diamond that, I guess, was exploratory. Has there been anything new on that?

John Somerhalder

No. it is a good project that we have an option to develop. But in this environment what we are focused on is our facilities at Golden Triangle and at Jefferson Island. We'll attempt to keep our option open there, but at this point, we don't have plans to move that project forward at this time.

Mike Hank

So that was another storage project.

John Somerhalder

Right. It was another Gulf Coast high deliverability salt down storage facility that we have options on and have done initial development work on.

Mike Hank

Okay. And then on the storage that you have running right now, are those longer-term contracts, or do they fluctuate more with the spot market for that? How does that work? I just wanted to get a feel for that.

John Somerhalder

Almost all of that capacity at Jefferson Island is under longer-term contracts. Now, some of those contracts are only a yearlong, but some of them are longer than that. So we have a portfolio of contracts, but essentially all of that capacity is held on a firm basis. At least one year, some of those, many more years than those contracts.

Mike Hank

And is a good amount of that coming off this year, and have prices on storage gone up just because of the amount of storage that's out there, gas for storage that's out there right now?

John Somerhalder

Yes, we have a part of that capacity that expires each year, but a relatively small percent. So we'll have some capacity expire this coming year. What we have seen on storage values is that we saw prices coming down over the last year. But over the last several months, we've seen that start to firm, but it's too early to say where it will move to, but we've seen some firming, primarily because of the larger summer-winter spreads that we've seen now and the other fundamentals we just talked about related to power generation and LNG expected to enter this market for summer.

Mike Hank

Okay. Great. Thanks.

John Somerhalder

Thanks Mike.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) At this time I will turn the call back to management for any Closing remarks.

Steve Cave

Okay, well, I think that's wraps it up. And we would like to thank everyone for joining us today. And have a great evening.

Operator

Thank you, sir, and thank you for your participation. You may now disconnect. Have a great day.

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Source: AGL Resources Inc., Q1 2009 Earnings Call Transcript

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