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Westar Energy, Inc. (NYSE:WR)

Q2 2013 Earnings Call

August 08, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Executives

Bruce Burns - Director of IR

Tony Somma - CFO

Mark Ruelle - CEO

Doug Sterbenz - COO

Analysts

Greg Gordon - ISI Group

Shahriar Pourrezza - Citigroup Global Markets Inc.

Brian Russo - Ladenburg Thalmann & Company Inc.

Michael Baker - DA Davidson

Travis Miller - Morningstar

Sarah Akers - Wells Fargo

Paul Zimbardo - UBS

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Second Quarter 2013 Westar Energy Earnings Conference Call. My name is Lisa and I’ll be your coordinator for today. (Operator Instructions). As a reminder, this call is being recorded for replay purposes.

I would now like to turn the conference over to your host for today, Mr. Bruce Burns, Director Investor Relations. Please proceed.

Bruce Burns

Good morning and welcome to our second quarter call. Last night we filed our 10-Q along with the earnings release and supplemental materials under the investor section on our website westarenergy.com. Some of our remarks will be forward looking, so I’ll remind you of uncertainties inherent in our comments this morning and in some of the statements found in the earnings release and the accompanying materials. Factors could cause our future results to differ from what we discuss today include those listed in the 10-Q under forward-looking statements and under risk factors. We encourage you to read the full disclosure in the 10-Q and in the earnings materials, both of which are available on the website. The earnings material also reflect how we reconcile our gross margin presentation and with GAAP earnings.

Commenting this morning will be our CFO Tony Somma, and CEO Mark Ruelle. We have other members of our team with us, should you have questions for them. Tony will offer highlights on the quarter and address guidance and will also discuss some recent financing activity. Mark will share his thoughts about our business and provide some updates on regulatory activity, observations about the Kansas business environment and our major projects that are progressing.

With that, I’ll introduce Tony.

Tony Somma

Thanks, Bruce. Good morning everyone. We had a good second quarter with EPS of $0.53, up 10% over last year. Gross margin actually decreased 1% due to weather and lower industrial sales. I will shed more light on that in just a moment. Helping more favorable price adjustments related to capital investments we made to improve the liability and infrastructure. As I said retail sales were also down heavily influenced by weather which though warmer than normal was quite a bit cool than last year’s very hot second quarter. We estimate weather reduced EPS by about $0.04 to $0.05 compared to last year. The story for industrial sales is the same as last quarter but the topline doesn’t tell the whole story. The softness continues to come principally from just from three very large lower margin customers. The chemical producer and foundry we mentioned last quarter plus the oil refinery his businesses remain strong because offtake from us was down due to some of their equipment issues that we expect to resolve by fall.

On a total the combined effect on EPS of these three customers was only about a penny. Overall the aerospace sector was up as are many of our pipeline customers. There is a fair amount of activity in the region that will benefit us 2014 and beyond. The New Mars chocolate factory next spring and expansion of several pipelines will be throughout next year. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility which seems to be advancing in his congressional funding has targeted its first building to be complete in 2015.

Additionally, our weather normalized on residential and commercial sales are showing some signs of modest growth. Our cost management plan is on track. Staffing levels are a couple of percent below last year this time and 6% below early 2012 levels. We held O&M and G&A flat excluding fuel purchase power. A few of the ups and downs that (middle) out to even were an $8 million decrease in labor and benefits most of which came from restructuring some insurance contracts, partially offset by $1 million increase in depreciation expense from new plant. We saw about $7 millions more of property tax and transmission expenses but recall these have revenue offsets.

With regard to other income, $10 million of COLI income for the quarter is running a little better than year-to-date guidance and about $6 million better than last year. Additionally, we’ve recorded another $7 million in the third quarter in the total to $17 million which is $3 million more than full year guidance. The $2 million increase in investment earnings, increased contributions from our Prairie Wind Transmission JV which provided the cash return (inaudible).

Moving to earnings guidance, we updated our guidance range pushing up a little lower end of the range by nickel making a new range $2.05 to $2.15 per share. The change considers recent cool with the normal weather, softness from the industrial customers I mentioned earlier, benefit in cost saving issues and COLI proceeds. Of course guidance continues to be conditioned on the typical factors including such things as weather, economy and other things we can't control. The updated earnings guidance drivers are available on our website with key assumptions underlying our guidance.

Now let me say a few words about our financing plan. We turned out some short term debt with bonds at the end of March and cut some expense by calling in higher cost debt in June. All told even with more long-term debt and outstanding, interest expense was only $1 million higher for the quarter.

Since May, we appraised a few more forward shares that will settle in 18 months. Through July, we now have 4 million shares that will settle later about half by year end with balance in late 2014. Our CapEx plan is on track. No surprises, as all of our major products remain on schedule and on budget. We planned to finish a major SCR build next year at Jeffery and will see retrofit mid 15. As I said, we’re now seeing cash returns on CWIP for our Prairie wind transmission project.

Now, it’s been about half a dozen years since we start our major environmental retrofits. Getting a bit of an early start compared to some of our peers as result we’ll have 93% of our coal capacity that’s all our major units scrubbed with NOx controls by 2015. We’re on target to meet mercury and particulate emission limits as well. In our supplement materials you can see how dramatically this has reduced our emission.

We will do a few small low cost environmental projects to mop up some odds and end, but right now we don’t see anymore very large environmental mandates for air emissions and the water and solid waste regulations we don’t think we’ll require outside investments either. This should allow us to redirect our capital funding to what we think will yield more value for our customers that is T&D.

More of T&D investments have timetable more under our control. As you know, the last five years we have doubled our transmission assets. Transmission is going to become an increasingly important part of our business. These investments helped to reduce the need for future generation and improved service reliability for our customers and the region.

Already this year, we completed 30 smaller transmission projects and made great progress on two 345 KV lines as well. Our Prairie Wind JV line remains on schedule and favorable to budget. In Q1, we kicked off another 345 KV line, a 30-mile project to enhance north-south power flows in central Kansas. The KCC hearing on a citing was yesterday and there were surprises.

After we have the citing order which we expect in three to four weeks, we’ll be acquiring rights away. We’re referring into the slides in the supplemental materials you might recall the second line is the first of many and our forefront that we expect the STP to endorse over the next few years.

With that, let me turn things over to Mark.

Mark Ruelle

Thank you, Tony, and good morning. I know most of you have a pretty long history of Westar but I also know we have a few new comers on the call today who maybe just getting to know us, so I would like to take a minute or two to reiterate a couple of the points to guide Westar’s approach to doing business. Of course, regulated electricity remains our only business, vertically integrated, rate regulated single state. What maybe sets up a part certainly what guys are decision making is that we reminder ourselves daily just how uncertain and unpredictable the world is.

We don’t pretend that we’re the ones who can predict the future rather we operate with a sharp appreciation of risk and seek to minimize it everywhere we can. Still by Westar for headline rather each day know that will small measures to keep out customers and shareholders in the game, getting good value and awarding unwelcome surprise regardless to what the world around us brings. It means, for example, maintaining a strong commitment to a diverse power supply recognizing that each way of making electricity whether gas, nuclear, coal or renewable has its advantages and disadvantages and doubling down on just one or two of them we think as risky.

So, we advocate for all of them keeping some of each in portfolio but not too much of any one. We work to ensure that our regulatory and policy environment is good for our customers, our investors, and our stake. Fortunately, Kansas has a long history of thoughtful stable energy policy and regulation, not generous mind you but pretty consistent and predictable.

As an illustration, we have not had regulators use our offices in Kansas as a way to build political careers as so often you see in some other states rather more typically there are thoughtful public servants focused on what’s best for our stake in the long run. Within the context of a pretty traditional cost to service regulation together we’ve developed a few tools to help make price adjustments more frequent but smaller. This approach helps our customers’ budget, reduced regulatory lag for investors and in the long run results to lower prices.

By their decisions, our regulators have shown they recognized the closing gap between cost incurrence and cost recovery balances the interest of both investors and customers over the long run. Examples of these are our transmission and environmental riders that we’ve just updated to reflect more than $300 million of plant investment we made last year. The transmission rider which we implemented in March had $12 million annual revenue. The environmental rider picked up $27 million. Both were implemented as planned as they have then in prior years.

Kansas also provides for an abbreviated or follow-on rate case if it soon follows a full blown general rate case. As planned, we filed in mid April an abbreviated case to recover about half of our LaCygne air quality retrofit in progress. It reflects investment of about $335,000 million through midyear, but does not require the cost, delay and complexity of another full-blown rate case.

Our net request in the case is $32 million just under 2%. In this abbreviated filing, capital structure, return and all the other items are already established based on the levels approved in last year’s General Rate Case. After this, we shouldn’t see base rates change again until late 2015 at the soonest, when we plan to pick up remainder of LaCygne in our next GRC.

If you know Kansas, you know the economy never seems to be either boom or bust, but our business environment is on the right trend. Overall, the local economy feels pretty solid; unemployment is just 5.8% still way better than the nation. Housing is now moving, residential building permits in our three largest cities are up 35% over the last year, so we are happy to be adding a few more customers.

In terms of the state’s policy environment, it’s very pro-business. Kansas has cut personal income taxes and eliminated them entirely for more small business owners. In a way, Kansas is a metaphor for itself, right in the middle of the country, geographically and economically, no high peaks, no deep valleys.

Let me say a few things about our operations starting at Wolf Creek. Though it’s one of the younger plants in the U.S. nuclear fleet, it’s now middle aged. With a 20 year license extension already in hand, the owners decided last year to test the market to enquire about whether a third party fleet operator might present us with a better model from an operating and a cost trend prospective. While the RFP told us what we wanted to learn but it also told us that for the time being we are on the right path, keeping it as an independently operated plant. So we brought that process to a close this summer.

As for current status, the NRC recently moved the plant to a more favorable category of regulatory oversight. From an operating prospective; it came out as a refueling at the spring and remains the full power. We will take a mid-cycle average early next year to tie-in some life extension equipment and then the next scheduled refueling will be spring 2015.

As part of our ongoing cost management and reliability initiatives, we have recently taken the advantage of some new systems technology, supplementing our reliability, vegetation and maintenance initiatives, that’s been up and running for a couple of years now, we just went live with a new mobile and outage management system. It will improve our outage responses and get the most banks for the buck and prioritizing our fieldwork.

In addition, just last month, we replaced our entire back-office financial and supply chain systems. I am pleased to say that our folks have managed this just like we manage our major construction projects. We went live under-budget, on-time less than a year start to finish, initiative like these are how Westar is adapting to the uncertainties and trends in the U.S. economy.

As Tony mentioned, we are getting to the end of a huge air quality retrofit program and now we are able to focus more on T&D opportunities. We prefer that for a couple of reasons. First: these projects provide tangible value for our customers in terms of reliability and security, both more important in today’s electronic device driven world. Second: the projects are more incremental with a lot more flexibility as to the amount and timing. As Tony indicated, we have already closed up 30 of them, this spring. As we bring the last two big air quality projects to a close you should expect to see us shift more of our focus to T&D while still growing our investment base.

Operator, we are now ready for questions from the financial community.

Members of the media, we invite you to contact Gina Penzig. Gina’s number is 785-575-8089 if you have questions. Operator, would you open it please?

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions). And your first question comes from the line of Greg Gordon with ISI Group. Please proceed.

Greg Gordon - ISI Group

So, it’s good to see that you raised the bottom end of the guidance range but at the same time I do think investors are probably a little bit concerned that you have lowered your expected overall sales growth rate for the year, I think you are trying to directly address that issue by focusing on the headwinds coming from these three specific customers and I think you are also trying to give us, may be some non-specific indicative guidance on sales growth trends in ’14, is it fair based on your non sort of quantitative commentary that you would expect some growth in ’14 given what you are seeing today and can you give us some more meat around that, if that’s in fact accurate?

Tony Somma

That is correct, we would expect these customers that the three large ones that I have mentioned, to kind of get back to previous levels by ’14 so that in itself will help our sales. In addition, we are seeing, as Mark mentioned, residential building permits picking up and there are some opportunities on the industrial side and the pipeline with the Mars and actually some of the pipelines coming into our service territory. So, we haven’t quantified any of that yet, that will get quantified obviously when we do our year end conference call.

Greg Gordon - ISI Group

Thanks. Second question is for you Tony, there has been some debate as to what you’re thought processes vis-à-vis timing on equity? I know you’ve satisfied your equity needs for the near term with the forward sales that you’ve already done but you’ve also indicated the need for equity at some point prior to the filing of your next major base rate case. And investors are wondering whether that means you’re going to issue equity let’s say sort of late ’14 or whether you think market conditions are such that you might entertaining idea of a forward sale. Can you comment on your strategy around equity?

Tony Somma

Greg, I think you kind of looked what we’ve done in the past. And you’re right. Our CapEx program is large and lumpy and we’re bringing on a major environmental upgrade on our sure out LaCygne and that’s going to require equity at the time we set rates. And so we could do that various ways that we’ve done in the past and we haven’t really decided whether we’re going to wait until 2015 to issue equity or we can also price equity today and settle later on.

Mark Ruelle

But in any event you should see us finance our company in a way consistent with the cost recovery of those projects. If you look at our practice in the past we and our regulators recognized that, that capital has to be paid for in the cost of service and not absorbed by our shareholders.

Greg Gordon - ISI Group

Okay, so you’re not prepared at this point to give us any sort of tightened visibility on whether you’ll do that through forward sale or wait and do an equity offering in a more traditional sense and more around the timing of the rate case?

Tony Somma

I think you look at our past behavior it’s pretty transparent.

Greg Gordon - ISI Group

Okay, thanks guys. And one final question, you’ve talked a lot about on the call much you’ve been doing to optimize the cost structure both through operating cost reductions and through accessing the capital market to reduce interest expense. Should I also extrapolate out if in the future that we should see continued positive momentum on cost?

Mark Ruelle

I think the world around us will dictate that behavior and we see ongoing cost management as one of the dividing issues between companies that adapt and those that don’t. And our employees are pretty tuned into the things it takes to keep our company successful for the long term. And so.

Greg Gordon - ISI Group

Thank you, guys.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Shahriar Pourrezza with Citigroup. Please proceed.

Shahriar Pourrezza - Citigroup Global Markets Inc.

Good morning, everyone. Just one question, as your forward spending outlook starts to shift away from environmental related spending more to transmission and distribution I am sort of wondering how closely you’re monitoring the FERC ROE issues in the New England area, and how that could impact your plants to build more high voltage lines? And whether you see that issue I guess seeping over to the SPP region?

Mark Ruelle

Well, we certainly monitoring closely and it’s not a well guarded secret we know what those impacts are. And I would say it this way which is the way I’ve described it to the FERC commissioners, which is the FERC policy has been one that they’ve done very effectively to increase the construction builds for transmission in this country. It’s rare that I say the government is doing a great job, but they’ve done a great job in that. But they control the throttle on how much of that capital gets dictated to other ways of keeping the lights on versus transmission. So, for example, if the capital is more valued endure in the transmission business, that’s where we’ll spend it. But you can keep the lights on in other ways, albeit more Balkanized with more generation, more distribution, more localized investment or you can do with transmission or a combination of both. Our capital will go where it’s most valued.

Shahriar Pourrezza - Citigroup Global Markets Inc.

Got it, thanks.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Brian Russo of Ladenburg Thalmann. Please proceed.

Brian Russo - Ladenburg Thalmann & Company Inc.

Just to follow up on the prior question on the sales forecast. Which is now flat versus 50 basis points to 100 basis points, if you were to exclude those three large industrial customers, would you be experiencing positive load growth?

Mark Ruelle

Yes.

Brian Russo - Ladenburg Thalmann & Company Inc.

And any idea would it kind of track that 50 bps to 100 bps or is a little bit less than that?

Mark Ruelle

Probably more towards the 50 bps as opposed to the 100, some of these large lion customers lower margin.

Brian Russo - Ladenburg Thalmann & Company Inc.

Understood, and then also there has been some change or revisions to some of the other key assumption, one is D&A which is 4 million versus 7 million. The ECCR which is 27 million versus 31 million, 3 million higher COLI proceeds and AFUDC is now 2 million versus no change. Can you just elaborate on each of those assumptions and what’s driving the changes?

Mark Ruelle

Well, the ECCR is just pass-through. And the COLI reflects what we’re going to receiving today. It just reflects more refined number from one we came out with the drivers back in February and depreciation I think it’s just reflecting actual plan balances as opposed to what we were estimating. Timing on completion of projects with this delay when you have that depreciation that the income statement.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Michael Baker with DA Davidson. Please proceed.

Michael Baker - DA Davidson

Just a couple of question for you. You mentioned earlier on you’re expecting another $7 million of COLI proceeds by the end of the year, is that something that you are highly confident in something that’s already come to pass or something?

Mark Ruelle

Something has already come to pass. Michael something that’s already come to pass but it’s not appropriate to record in the second quarter.

Michael Baker - DA Davidson

And given that this income nontaxable, if I’m understanding correctly, I noticed that you haven’t changed your expectations around the effective tax rate for the year. Is it reasonable to assume that given that you believe that COLI proceeds are going to be higher that effective tax rate would be towards the bottom end of the range you’ve given?

Tony Somma

It’s just on the margin Michael; I mean these are things that drive our tax rate, production tax credits from wind et cetera. So, it will benefit us a little bit, it will be unfair for us to say it’s going to move the needle.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Travis Miller with Morningstar. Please proceed.

Travis Miller - Morningstar

One general question looking at over next two years maybe as we get that ramped down in CapEx spending we’ve owned almost 200 million lower, we look out 2015 as the environmental stuff comes off. What are your thoughts on payout ratio as we go forward, as we look out to 2015, maybe even once you get that rate case in effect?

Mark Ruelle

Well, our views on that have been pretty long standing and pretty consistently stated but for those that are a little newer to the company or restated, we think an appropriate payout ratio policy for this company, the nature of its business is based on our belief about future is to payout 60% or 75% of normalized earnings.

Obviously, there are things that will bounce it around in that range, for example like where we are in construction cycle, where we are in our rate case cycle but as a general rule, that’s a pretty broad range that we’re comfortable with at the present time.

Travis Miller - Morningstar

Fred, I assume given that comment about where you are on the capital cycle that you could see a trend up to that higher end, maybe 70%, 75% as we get the 2015 as a fair reading.

Mark Ruelle

I think, I’ll leave it as stated that, that’s a pretty responsible payout ratio in our Boards view.

Travis Miller - Morningstar

Those smaller transmission lines you talked about what’s the rate recovery mechanism? Is that through FERC?

Mark Ruelle

Just like any other of our transmission investment which is it has FERC formula rate with a forward look, the current authorized return is just slightly over 11. And then what maybe sets apart from some other integrated vertically integrated companies that have FERC formula rates is we have a state practice that’s actually statutory that adjusts our retail rates to reflect the changes in the formula rate adjustment at the FERC every year. So, for example, it works like this, we update the formula late in the year. On January 1, that’s FERC formula rate goes into effect and within the couple of months our retail rates are updated to reflect the largest portion of that.

But whether you’re talking about 115 rebuild or our new transformer or our 345 line, they all reflect at same rate making structure.

Travis Miller - Morningstar

Okay. Great, thanks so much.

Mark Ruelle

That’s one of the reasons we prefer the transmission investment. First of all, it’s very incremental and there is lot of small things we can do to improve service reliability improve security. But it doesn’t have the Greenfield risk or the big headline risk associated with lot of the transmission projects people want to tout. We're just quietly going about our business, and Kelly we have 100 million to 200 million you hear that stuff?

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Sarah Akers with Wells Fargo. Please proceed.

Sarah Akers - Wells Fargo

Couple of questions on T&D, first on transmission; with the removal the (row for) do you have plans to pursue any FPP transmission projects outside of Kansas or do you feel like there is enough in your backyard there?

Mark Ruelle

We certainly have no prohibitions on it. We think we're probably better suited to deal with it in our own footprint but there is nothing it requires us to. But I would certainly say that we think there is much more value in pursing what we have locally than stretching further unless we have to.

Sarah Akers - Wells Fargo

And then on the distribution side, what types of opportunities are you seeing in terms of the types of projects, whether it's rebuilds or new distribution lines and the size. And might there be an ability to secure a writer or more forward looking recovery on that investment as we think about kind of ramping the D.

Mark Ruelle

Doug why don't you address the technical side and then Jeff Martin who is our VP of regulatory can maybe talk about different ways to effectively recover those costs.

Doug Sterbenz

The opportunity in the distribution side is with our reliability program, reliability that Mark mentioned. We go in and we do tree trimming and then behind that we do a very detailed walk down that includes thermo graphics and other tools that find weak spots in our distribution system. Then we go in behind that and show all that up, thus making the system more robust, and we're finding a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done as we clear these trees we find these kinds of problems, that we can fix. Primarily that's capital work.

Jeff Martin

And to follow up on what Doug said with the liability you have that in rates, as well as we're looking at a good resiliency program and have started just to really look into that program to see how the best cost recovery can be, and we will be pursuing something in the near future on that.

Mark Ruelle

I would say Sarah that one of the approaches we have taken that we have discussed with our regulators is we have a pretty good history of great storm recovery, pretty good reliability and high customer satisfaction range. So none of this has driven externally is driven intrinsically by us and our regulators which is, frankly we think Kansas is a little smarter than waiting for stuff to become a problem before we address it. And so that's why we're trying to deal it proactively.

We all know that what used to be a lot of patience when the lights are down, now that patience is measured by how long somebody's cell phone stays charged. And customer expectations are growing and we want to be ahead of that not behind it.

Sarah Akers

And then last on the abbreviated rate case, I know there was some anticipation of potential pushback on the new rate design. Can you update us on the discussion there and any surprises to this point?

Mark Ruelle

No surprises, I mean we're still pursuing our rate design which we think is the one best suited to keeping our industry competitive, to reducing cross subsidies, we expect to make some progress on that. But of course that will be in the hands of the commission. Staff testimony has not come out yet, we expect that mid September?

Tony Somma

August 21st.

Mark Ruelle

Late August.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Julien Dumoulin-Smith with UBS. Please proceed.

Paul Zimbardo - UBS

A quick question, I know you touched on the Wolf Creek and RFPs as well some of the maintenance plans going forward, and previously communicated the risk reward profile wasn't appropriate. I want to know are you considering any other strategic options for the plant going forward and you could just share your though process there?

Mark Ruelle

No we're not. We intend to move forward with the current operating model that we have, we're seeing some real concrete performance improvement, and we're seeing our ratings improve from the NRC, we got a lot of work to do but we're going to continue along that path.

Operator

There are no additional questions at this time; I will now like to turn the presentation back over to Mr. Mark Ruelle for closing remarks.

Mark Ruelle

Well thank you everybody for joining us this morning, of course if you have a follow up question you know how to get hold to Bruce, our Director of Investor Relations, that's 785-575-8227 is Bruce's extension. Thank you.

Operator

Ladies and gentleman that concludes today's conference. Thank you for your participation, you may now disconnect. Have a great day.

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