Utilities: The New Hot Sector

by: Zacks Investment Research

If it seems like every stock you own or watch is breaking out to new highs, you're almost right. As the September rally has continued into October, it has pushed 37.4% of the stocks on the S&P 500 to either new 52-week highs or within a fraction of that high.

While it is an diverse group of companies, from food companies, to apparel, to integrated oil, to hotels that are hitting new highs, one group stood out from the pack: the utilities.

Yes, the one area most investors consider dull and boring actually has been anything but that in recent months.

29 companies, or 15.5%, of those making new highs were in the utilities sector which includes Electric Power, Gas Distribution and the Telephone segment.

Who Cares About the Utilities?

I chalk up the interest in this group to investors searching for yield. The utilities companies historically have paid out high dividends.

But this year, as investors have poured in, some of the utilities have seen their shares surge. So, while normally investors are in these stocks simply for the yield, they now are also getting a very nice return. Suddenly the utilities are a dream combination for investors.

One of the big winners in 2010 in the utility sector has been CMS Energy (NYSE:CMS) which is up 18.7% year to date and also pays out 3.2%.

A few of the other hot ones in the sector include Dominion Resources (NYSE:D) up 14.3% on the year and paying out 4.1% to shareholders, Southern Company (NYSE:SO) up 13.3% and paying out 4.8% and CenturyTel (NYSE:CTL) gaining 11.2% along with its juicy payout of 7.2%.

The Hottest Stocks For the Year Are From Different Industries

Unlike some stock rallies where certain industries seem to be the "hottest" group, i.e. the commodities stocks in 2007 and, of course, the technology stocks in the late 1990s, this rally has spread the love.

21 stocks in the S&P 500 are up 40% or more on the year and you can't really say that there is a clear pattern.

The largest industry group is Nonfood Retail with 6 companies out of the top 21 but those run the gambit from auto retailers like Autozone (NYSE:AZO) to the value discount retailer Family Dollar (NYSE:FDO) and the online travel giant Priceline.com (NASDAQ:PCLN).

The one thing they all do have in common is the consumer so perhaps a concentration of top performing stocks in this sector means investors believe the consumer is back- at least in certain areas. And that's a positive sentiment for the economy, and the stock market, going forward.

These 21 S&P 500 Companies Are Up More Than 40% Year To Date

Company Ticker % Ch Price Year-to-Date Industry
Cummins Inc CMI 103.27% Autos-Tires-Trucks
Lexmark Intl LXK 67.17% Computer-Office Equipment
Family Dollar FDO 64.61% Nonfood Retail-Wholesale
Priceline.Com PCLN 52.32% Nonfood Retail-Wholesale
Qwest Comm Intl Q 52.26% Utility-Telephone
Starwood Hotels HOT 51.87% Leisure
Autozone Inc AZO 47.4% Nonfood Retail-Wholesale
Genzyme-General GENZ 46.4% Drugs
Intuit Inc INTU 46.18% Computer Software-Services
Sunoco Inc SUN 45.1% Oil-Misc
Metropcs Commun PCS 44.95% Telecommunications Services
Airgas Inc ARG 44.39% Chemicals & Fertilizers
Pioneer Nat Res PXD 44.36% Oil- Exploration & Production
Equity Resident EQR 43.81% Real Estate
Limited Inc LTD 43.4% Nonfood Retail-Wholesale
Hasbro Inc HAS 42.86% Other Consumer Discretionary
Cognizant Tech CTSH 42.71% Computer Software-Services
Macys Inc M 41.41% Nonfood Retail-Wholesale
Discovery Com-A DISCA 41.28% Media
O Reilly Auto ORLY 40.74% Nonfood Retail-Wholesale
Assurant Inc AIZ 40.3% Insurance
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Disclosure: None