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Avista Corporation (NYSE:AVA)

Q3 2012 Earnings Call

November 6, 2012 10:30 am ET

Executives

Jason Lang – Investor Relations

Scott L. Morris – Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer

Mark Thies – Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Kelly Norwood – Vice President, Avista Corp., Vice President of State and Federal Regulations, Avista Utilities

Dennis Vermillion – Vice President, Avista Corp., President, Avista Utilities

Analysts

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets

Operator

Welcome to the Avista Corporation Q3, 2012 Earnings Conference Call. My name is John, and I'll be your operator for today's call. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct a question-and-answer session. Please note that this conference is being recorded. I will now turn the call over to Mr. Jason Lang. Mr. Lang, you may begin.

Jason Lang

Thank you, John and good morning, everyone. Welcome to Avista's third quarter 2012 earnings conference call. Our earnings were released pre-market this morning, and the release is available on our website at avistacorp.com.

Joining me this morning are Avista Corp's Chairman of the Board, President and CEO, Scott Morris; Senior Vice President and CFO, Mark Thies; Senior Vice President and the President of Avista Utilities, Dennis Vermillion; Vice President of State and Federal Regulation, Kelly Norwood and the Vice President, Controller and Principal Accounting Officer, Christy Burmeister-Smith.

I’d like to remind everyone that some of the statements that will be made today are forward-looking statements that involve assumptions, risks, and uncertainties which are subject to change. For reference to the various factors, which could cause actual results to differ materially from those discussed in today's call, please refer to our Form 10-K for 2011 and our Form 10-Q for the second quarter of 2012, which are available on our website.

To begin this presentation, I'd like to recap the financial results presented in today's press release. Our consolidated earnings remain unchanged from those initially reported on our October 23rd call. Our consolidated earnings were $0.10 per diluted share for the third quarter of 2012 compared to $0.18 for the third quarter of 2011. On a year-to-date basis our consolidated earnings were $1.06 per diluted share for 2012 compared to $1.30 for 2011.

Now, I'll turn the discussion over to Scott Morris.

Scott L. Morris

Thank you, Jason, and before I start I just want to reach out to all of our folks on the phone that are from the East Coast and after watching just that devastating hurricane hit the East Coast, our thoughts and prayers are certainly been with you. And I hope that you and your family, and friends are safe and your property wasn't overly damaged than that you all are on the way to a good recovery. And I know that the industry is working really hard to get, all the energy restored on the East Coast. So our thoughts are certainly have been with you during this very difficult time.

As we initially reported on our October 23rd call, our results for the third quarter and forecast results for the reminder of the 2012 were below our expectations. As such we lowered our consolidated earnings guidance for the year, this was primarily due to weak results at Ecova's as well as losses at our other non-utility businesses.

We continue to expect our utility results to be at the lower end of our original guidance for 2012 largely due to retail loads are being lower than we originally anticipated. We are well-positioned for the future at our utility, which contributes over 90% of our consolidated earnings. We are implementing certain programs to slow the pace of growth and our operating costs and achieve long-term sustainable cost savings.

Such measures include evaluating all operating and maintenance activities, reprioritizing projects and implementing a voluntary severance program. At Ecova, revenues were up in 2012 primarily due to acquisitions. We are expecting organic revenue growth of 5% for 2012 compared to organic revenue growth of 13% in 2011. Operating expenses are up due to the addition of employees and other fixed infrastructure to support anticipated higher revenue growth, which do not fully materialize in 2012.

Mark is going to provide some more details on Ecova results for 2012 in just a few minutes. To maintain service reliability at our utility and meet the energy needs of our customers, we continue to make significant capital investments generation transmission and distribution. Utility CapEx was $178 million for the first nine months of 2012 out of a capital budget of $257 million. We expect utility CapEx to be about $260 million in each of 2013 and 2014.

As discussed in our earlier call, we reached a Multi-Party Settlement and Washington in general rate case in October, which is pending Washington Commission approval and we found electric and natural gas generate cases in Idaho. We attract three key economic indicators affecting our three district metropolitan areas and our service territories Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Medford. The key indicators are employment change, unemployment rates and foreclosure rate.

On a year-over-year basis, September 2012 employment indicators are positive for all three service areas. We noted that unemployment rates are lower in all three areas and foreclosure rates have decreased compared to prior period.

Our service area economy has been recovering more slowly than the United States as a whole. And in 2012, we continue to expect economic growth in our service area to be lower as compared to the rest of the nation.

And with that, I'll turn the call over to Mark.

Mark Thies

Thank you, Scott and good morning, everyone. For the third quarter of 2012, utility earnings increased slightly from 2011 contributing $0.13 per diluted share in both periods. On a year-to-date basis, utility earnings contributed $1.10 per diluted share, a decrease from $1.18 in 2011.

Cooling degree days in Spokane for the first nine months of 2012 were 24% above historical average and were 26% above the comparable period in 2011. Heating degree days in Spokane for the first nine months were close to historical average, but decreased 9% as compared to the first nine months of 2011. For the third quarter of 2012, we recognized a benefit of $0.8 million under the Energy Recovery Mechanism compared to $1 million for the third quarter of 2011.

For the nine months ended, we recognized a benefit of $5.9 million under the ERM compared to $5.7 million for the same period in 2011. We continue to expect a benefit under the ERM for the full year within the 90%/10% sharing band. This is primarily due to natural gas fuel prices below the amount included in base rates.

Ecova's year-to-date revenues increased $24.5 million as compared to the first nine months of 2011 and totaled $115.7 million. The acquisitions of Prenova and LPB added $18 million to operating revenues for the first nine months of 2012. Although revenues increased from 2011, organic growth and Ecova’s expense and data management services were slower than expected. And there was delayed implementation of new customers in Ecova's energy management services.

The $36.5 million increase in total operating expenses for Ecova, primarily reflects increased cost necessary to support ongoing and future business growth, as well as to support the increased revenue volume obtained through the acquisitions. Including in the increase was $1.5 million in integration and transaction related cost during the first quarter and $4.4 million increase in depreciation and amortization for the first nine months of 2012 due to intangibles and other long live assets recorded in connection with the acquisitions.

In July, Ecova entered into a new five-year $125 million committed line of credit agreement with various financial institutions, replacing its $60 million committed line of credit. As of September 2012, Ecova had $58 million of borrowings outstanding under this agreement.

The net loss from our other businesses was $2.5 million for the third quarter and $3.8 million for the nine months ended September 30. The decline in results from other businesses for both periods was primarily due to losses on investments of $3 million including $1.7 million impairment of our investment in a fuel cell business and $0.7 million write-off of our investment in a solar energy company. Also there were increased litigation costs for the remaining contracts and previous operations of Avista Energy.

Earnings from METALfx were $1.1 million for each of the nine months ended September 30, 2012 and 2011.

As of September 30, we had $291 million of available liquidity under our $400 million committed line of credit with $82 million of cash borrowings and $27 million in letters of credit outstanding.

In August 2012, we entered into two sales agency agreements under which we will be able to sell shares of our common stock from time to time. In the third quarter of 2012, we sold approximately 900,000 shares for a total of $23.7 million. As of September 30, we had 1.8 million shares available to be issued under these agreements.

For the first nine months, we have issued $28.7 million of common stock, including the issuance is under the sales agency agreements. We do not expect to issue any further common stock under such agreements in 2012. However, we do expect to issue up to $50 million of common stock in 2013 in order to maintain our capital structure at an appropriate level for our business.

The additional shares expected to be issued under a sales agency agreement, as well as dividend reinvestment and direct stock purchase plan and employee plans. As we reported on our October 23rd call, we have lowered our 2012 consolidated earnings guidance to a range of $1.50 to $1.60 per diluted share.

Our expectations for Avista Utilities earnings contribution is a range of a $1.51 to $1.58 per diluted share for 2012, which includes the benefit under the Energy Recovery Mechanism within the 90%/10% sharing band. It is important to note that the forecast of our position in the ERM can vary significantly due to a variety of factors including the level of hydroelectric generation and retail loads, as well as changes in purchased power and natural gas fuel prices. Our outlook for Avista Utilities assumes, among other variables, normal precipitation and temperatures for the remainder of the year.

Certain programs including a voluntary severance program are being implemented at Avista Utilities in 2012 to achieve long-term sustainable cost savings. The upfront costs of implementing such programs, will be recorded in the fourth quarter of 2012, but are not known at this time and are not included in 2012 earnings guidance.

We expect Ecova to contribute in the range of $0.05 to $0.07 per diluted share in 2012. We expect operating revenues to be in the range of $155 million to $165 million with approximately 56% derived from expense and data management services and 44% from energy management services.

We expect other businesses to be between a loss of $0.05 to $0.06 per diluted share in 2012. As we reported in October 23rd call, we initiated 2013 guidance for consolidated earnings to be in the range of $1.70 to $1.90 per diluted share. We estimate that our 2013 consolidated earnings guidance range encompasses a return on equity of approximately 8.25% to 9%.

We expect Avista Utilities to contribute in the range of $1.62 to $1.76 per diluted share for 2013. As compared to 2012, we expect our utility earnings to be positively impacted by general rate increases. And we expect these earnings to continue to be limited by slow load growth due to the economy, the delay in recovery of operating expenses and capital investments, as well as increased operating costs, including pension and other post-retirement benefit costs. As such, we need to implement certain measures to manage our operating costs and these measures will include evaluating all O&M activities, re-prioritizing projects and the implementation of a voluntary severance program. Based on our current evaluations we have identified sufficient opportunities to achieve our expected range.

Our range for Avista utilities encompasses expected variability in power supply costs and the application of the ERM to that power supply cost variability. The mid-point of our utility guidance range does not include any benefit or expense under the ERM. Our outlook for Avista utilities assumes among other variables normal precipitation, temperatures, and hydroelectric generation as well as the implementation of the Washington general rate case settlement, subject to approval of the Washington commission, on Jan. 1, 2013

For 2013, we expect Ecova to contribute in the range of $0.10 to $0.14 per diluted share. We expect operating revenues to be in the range of $170 million to $190 million with approximately 51% derived from expense and data management services, 45% from energy management services, and 4% from new products. We expect approximately one-third of earnings to occur in the first half of 2013 and two-thirds to occur during the second half of the year.

We expect other businesses to be between a break-even and a loss of $0.02 per diluted share.

So I will now turn the call back over to Jason.

Jason Thackston

Thanks Mark. Now, we’d like to open this call up for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

We will now begin the question-and-answer session. (Operator Instructions) Our first question comes from Brian Russo from Ladenburg. Please go ahead.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Hi, good morning.

Scott L. Morris

Hi Brian.

Mark Thies

Hi Brian.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

On the previous call you guys have guided to roughly 3% to 4% of operating expense growth in 2013 over 2012, is that still the trend we should expect?

Mark Thies

Yes, that hasn't changed.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Okay. And on that topic, a lot of your other peer utilities and just utilities in general attempt to match operating expense growth or O&M expense growth with sales growth or try to maintain it flat to help support the earned returns. And I'm just curious why are you experiencing this type of operating expense growth and can you kind of break it down a bit? Is it an aging workforce or is it just cost inflation, just want to get a sense of what makes you guys different from some of your peers?

Mark Thies

I don't know significantly I can’t really comment on how everybody’s cost. We have typically suggested that some of the drivers in our costs is, yes, we do have increases in our pension and post retirement medial cost. A lot of that is primarily due to a discount rate on with interest expense where interest rates going down, that increases the discounted rate on our defined benefit plan and our post retirement plans that causes cost increases for us.

We continue to evaluate all the different activities we are doing and we look at the maintenance projects and we have major maintenance projects that we need to continue to do to maintain our facilities and we just continue to believe that differing that some companies may. I don't know, I can’t speak for other companies, may choose to differ maintenance on certain of their plans and have expectations that well if it doesn't break, we’re okay. We try to be more proactive there and maintain our plans on a consistent basis to have the strong reliability that we think make sense for our customer.

Scott L. Morris

And Brian, I would also say that probably a lot of utilities on those major maintenance projects have trackers or some other mechanism or that’s not affecting them on an annual basis. And as you know in Washington, we don’t have those kinds of trackers, so when we have major maintenance it affects our O&M budgets.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Okay, great. The consolidated ROE guidance in 2013 of 8.25% to 9%, is that higher or lower than your utility earned return? I mean is the consolidated being helped by Ecova or is it being hurt by Ecova?

Mark Thies

Probably slightly down. It’s probably – utility is probably slightly higher, but again the utility is such a dominant portion of our overall earnings, when we look at $0.10 to $0.14 for Ecova guidance versus $1.70 to $1.90 it’s so much more utility, so it really more approximates utility, it might be slightly impacted negatively by Ecova but not significantly on a complete ROE basis.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Okay, and load growth is still 0.7% in 2013 over 2012?

Mark Thies

Yeah, that’s it. We’re at the bottom end of our expectations and yes, it’s approximately 0.7%.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Okay. And then lastly just on the – I understand that the guidance for 2013 assumes a mid-point of zero. And I’m just wondering assuming hydro – normal hydro conditions next year and given where fuel, gas prices are now arguably in a trough and that the recent reset of your fuel cost. I mean it’s less likely for you guys to benefit on the upside excluding any favorable hydro conditions?

Mark Thies

I don’t know, gas prices can go up or down. I don’t think we want to, we have it forecasted again at the mid-point with no expectation if gas prices raise, yes, that does cause some pressure on us. If gas prices decline over the course of time and depending on hydro comes up, all those factors are also just common risk force that we always have Brian and we have them still. I wouldn’t want to comment. As we look forward, if gas prices do go up that can negatively impact us. Yes, and if they come down slightly or stabilize then it doesn’t hurt us.

So and a lot of it, and in the hydro as you know, we always have that risk whether it’s going to be a good hydro year or a bad hydro year, so in a bad hydro year that’s negative.

Scott L. Morris

Brian, we’ll have a better insight in February and obviously in May, so as we get more information, we’ll certainly share with you our insights and how we think the arms going to turn out, we done that in the past and we’ll continue to do that as we get better information.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

Could you share with us what would gas prices embedded in the fuel factor currently or for 2013 or is it get updated again?

Kelly Norwood

Brian, this is Kelly. We obviously did update recently in the rate case for the most recent estimates of fuel prices for 2013. I don’t have that number here in front of me.

Brian Russo – Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.

All right, thank you.

Scott L. Morris

Thanks, Brian.

Operator

Our next question comes from Michael Klein from Sidoti & Company. Please go ahead.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

Hi, good morning.

Scott L. Morris

Good morning, Mike.

Mark Thies

Hi, Michael.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

The lower usage at certain industrial customers that you cited in the press release is it fair to characterize the local environment as getting worse or things just staying relatively flat and not showing much of improvement.

Scott L. Morris

Mike, it’s staying relatively flat and again those two large industrials, one was the mining issue that had to do with some safety violations and we expect that load to be coming back and it’s not fully back, but it’s coming back. And I know there was a large plant that had some problems with some motors and equipment that is now trying to get that resolved and should have it resolved by…

Dennis Vermillion

It already is…

Scott L. Morris

It already is resolved Dennis, just said. So it's primarily just due to an economy that has not quite recovered yet.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

Okay. And at Ecova with the guidance, the new products that you are estimating constituted about 4% at 2013 sales. What exactly are these new products and is the margin profile closer to the energy management business?

Kelly Norwood

The main new product is one we’re calling real estate owned and it’s a business that we are working with Fannie and Freddie on as you know and other banks. There is a lot of foreclosures that happened across the country. And we're working with them to help manage their real estate issues around that. Also the expense in the data management platforms and performance that we’re trying to bring on into play are also two other – another product that we’re working on. And yes, as far as our margin is concerned there is recurring revenue around those.

Mark Thies

It’s similar to expense in data management. It is really a bill processing or processing service that we provide for foreclosure in the housing industry. So it’s more similar to our expense in data management.

Kelly Norwood

So, it's not a one time consulting kind of issue. It’s a recurring revenue kind of business.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

Okay, so on the margin profile let’s towards, I guess, the legacy businesses that had historical lower margin, is that correct?

Scott L. Morris

That’s what we would expect, yes.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

Okay. And just lastly on the utility CapEx that $260 million in 2013 and 2014, I guess how much is your routine maintenance CapEx typically we’re on. I’m just trying to see how much maybe could be delayed as you kind of explore opportunities to re-prioritize projects in kind of delayed cost here or postponed cost.

Mark Thies

Well Mike, what we've done is we that’s included in our expectations. We look at all of our projects and those projects end up being significantly more than what we have and we have a process that narrows that down to a level that includes projects that we think need to be made from a capital perspective on maintenance of our facilities. And so that 268 really is our estimation of what should be done to maintain the quality of our system and a lot of it is programatic, some of it is growth capital. I mean, I know we have low growth amounts from an overall perspective, but some of those dollars 10% to 15% of our CapEx is growth capital for new customers.

And the rest is system capital that we believe needs to be made and really, if we change it given where interest rates go, if you moved out a significant amount let’s say $50 million of capital, it really doesn’t have a significant impact to earnings on a current basis, because our capital is very long life capital. And we have historically had very good success in getting capital additions into our rate base as we go. It’s not an issue there, but it's just such long life assets and low interest rates, it doesn't have that big of impact on earnings. So we believe that in the current rate environment, it is prudent to continue to deploy that capital for our system.

Michael Klein – Sidoti & Company

Okay. Thanks a lot. I’ll hop back in the queue.

Mark Thies

Okay.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Our next question comes from Jim von Riesemann from UBS. Please go ahead.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

Good morning.

Scott L. Morris

Good morning, Jim.

Mark Thies

Hi, Jim.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

Hey, a question circling back to this equity comments you made before, can you just refresh our memories as to how much you had under this continuous equity offering program at the end of 2Q and then give me those numbers again?

Mark Thies

Well, we issued in the third quarter, we came out and said that we, sure, I’m just looking for the number for what we had issued. The differences that what we had in 2Q, I don’t have the number right here in front of me. I’ll find it.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

What I’m trying to get at is how much of this $50 million that you said that you need next year is a delay from what you might have cleaned up in the fourth quarter versus incremental and…

Mark Thies

Well, about $10 million to $15 million Jim. I mean we really or we decided at this point that we are going to not issue in the fourth quarter and we just added about $10 million to $15 million into 2013 and that’s incorporated and included in the $50 million.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

That includes the $5 million or so from just normal internal plans, right.

Mark Thies

Yes.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

Okay. And then I guess the second question is turning now to acting like a fixed income analyst, but can you talk a little bit about cash from operations outlook. I know you given some earnings guidance and some color around that, but can you talk about CSO maybe in 2013 and 2014 what you’re seeing?

Mark Thies

Well, again we continue to what I’ve said is we continue to grow our rate based outlook that as we have strong cash from operations I don’t have that the 10-Q in front of me, but we issue that every year we support most of our capital budget through our cash from operations and then really we have to fund our dividend and any other contributions for subsidiary capital through raising capital, but so our cash flow from operations for 2012 for the nine months ended is approximately $257 million and we’ll file our 10-Q later this week, but it’s about $257 million in 2012 compared to $240 million in 2011 for the nine months ended. So again, we have very strong cash flow from our operations that really supports most of our CapEx and then we have to fund our dividend and any other again contributions to subsidiaries.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

How do you think about the dividend and the dividend profile going forward Scott and what are you recommending for the board these days?

Scott L. Morris

Again our philosophy is always been, we are going to pay the industry average which is around 60% to 70% of our dividend payout ratio, we’re about smack-dab in the middle there right now and I expect the board to continue with that philosophy going forward, Jim.

James von Riesemann – UBS Investment Bank

Okay, great thanks. See you in Arizona.

Mark Thies

Yeah, thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from Timothy Yee from KeyBanc. Please go ahead.

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets

Good morning guys. Just a few questions on Ecova. So you mentioned this year that the growth rate now at 5% versus your prior estimate of 13%. For next year in the press release I think you mentioned back to double-digit growth, so is it a kind of a target for that or is that kind of above or below the 13% you had expected this year?

Mark Thies

We’ll look about 10%, I mean it’s when I guess if you look at double-digits, in our prior call someone said that could be 10% to 99%. Well, we’re looking at 10% growth for organic growth and we think that’s good solid organic growth for that business.

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.

Okay, and then could you just explain the timing of the Ecova earnings the one-third in the first half, and the two-thirds in the second half?

Mark Thies

We just looked at again a lot of it is managing for the legacy business, the expense and data management business. That’s managing utility spend primarily. So they also have lease and telecom and other products but it is primarily utility spend. Well, that tends to be more heavily weighted to the second half of the year. So you get a winter quarter in the fourth quarter and a good strong summer quarter in the third quarter, there is more energy spend and more opportunity to manage bills there.

And then also with the higher energy spend, there is more opportunity in our building management and real-time building management to generate savings in those businesses, when you have higher energy spend quarter. So it just is more heavily weighted and we haven’t previously given the seasonality. We thought that it made sense this year to do that because we didn’t want to get to six months and have it look like, oh geez, we’re only at about a third of what we expect for the year and have concerns again. That is what we expect and that’s just a normal seasonality for this business.

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.

Great, okay. And then last question. On the October call, Scott, I think you mentioned that you were continuing to look for ways to get value out of Ecova, possibly sale or future IPO. Have the thinking there changed on the business versus continuing to grow it organically?

Scott L. Morris

No.

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.

No?

Scott L. Morris

No.

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.

So, I guess when was the original kind of thinking of possibly monetizing it?

Scott L. Morris

Well, we’ve always talked about in terms of evaluating who is the best parent for this business long term and how do we create the most shareholder value with Ecova and that’s really never change. We’ve always been thinking about that and the idea of whether we eventually do an IPO or a sale is something that we’ve always contemplated and we will continue to do so when we feel the timing is right.

Timothy Yee – KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.

Okay. Thank you very much.

Scott L. Morris

Thank you.

Operator

We have no further questions at this time. Mr. Lang, do you have any closing remarks?

Jason Lang

Yeah, we appreciate your time this morning and thank you for your interest in our company. Have a great day.

Operator

Thank you ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today’s conference. Thank you for participating. You may now disconnect.

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