By: Jake Mann
There are plenty of publicly traded utility companies on the markets today, and most dabble in gas, electricity, or some combination of the two. If you're a dividend investor, though, there are actually very few places to look, particularly if you're risk averse.
According to our research, there are only two electric utility companies with dividend growth streaks-i.e., periods when dividend payments have consistently increased annually-of more than 25 years. Let's take a look:
Consolidated Edison (ED), or ConEd as it is commonly referred to, has increased its dividend payments in 39 consecutive years. The company realizes more than 70% of its revenues from electricity generation in New York City, northern New Jersey and northeastern Pennsylvania. Gas and steam revenues account for less than 20% of the company's overall top line, which explains why most industry classification systems recognize ConEd as an electric utility provider, and not an electric/gas utility company.
With that distinction in mind, it's important to understand that ConEd's current dividend streak is second in the entire electric utility industry, and a yield of 4.2% is very handsome. The company pays out around 70% of its earnings as dividends, which is about in line with industry averages, and free cash flows nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012.
There aren't really any red flags at ConEd, and while earnings growth is nearly non-existent, shares are not particularly expensive at 15 times forward EPS. Depressed natural gas prices have limited power costs, which is a net positive for power suppliers like ConEd. Gross margins have increased from 52.1% in 2009 to 67.3% this year (trailing twelve months).
Maintenance costs inevitably exist, but that's really true for every company in this industry. If you are searching for dividends here, it's tough to dislike a yield above 4% on a dividend that's been increased for four straight decades. We don't expect the streak to end anytime soon.
Black Hills Corp (BKH), meanwhile, has grown its dividend in a whopping 43 straight years. This is tops in the electric utility industry, and unlike ConEd, this is a small-cap stock that offers a bit more growth potential.
Wall Street expects Black Hills, which powers customers in South Dakota, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, to generate earnings growth of 4% a year through 2018. This is more than double what's expected of ConEd, and is higher than peers like Teco Energy (TE) and the more diversified Ameren (AEE).
This growth advantage, and a dividend yield near 3% that offers elite consistency, gives investors the right to pay 1.8 times book and 21 times forward earnings for the stock. Black Hills isn't cheap by any means, but it certainly isn't expensive. Cash flow metrics, for example-Black Hills grew operating cash by 40% last year-indicate a slight undervaluation in comparison to industry averages.
One thing worth pointing out: free cash flow at the company is negative over the past twelve months, but at a $10 million shortfall, it has improved by nearly twentyfold since 2011. Last fall, in fact, S&P revised its outlook on Black Hills to 'positive' on the basis of strengthening cash flows.
Additionally, the company pays just under 50% of its earnings as dividends, so there's no reason to worry about the yield. With Black Hills' projected EPS expansion, we expect continued dividend growth into the intermediate future at the very least.