Utilities become desirable, to both novice and seasoned investors, whenever the market or the economy is going through a downturn. Picking individual utility companies to invest in can be time consuming, and if you choose poorly, you will not take part in the benefits that investing in public utilities can provide.

Mutual funds that specialize in utility companies are most often where investors place their money. They offer instant diversification, but that comes at a price – in the form of management fees, which are normally passed along to investors. Utility trusts that operate or invest in public utilities can be a good alternative for many investors. (For more on mutual fund fees, take a look at Stop Paying High Mutual Fund Fees.)

What Are Utility Trusts?
Utility trusts are a type of income trust that are less growth focused than traditional income trusts. An income trust is simply an investment trust that holds income-generating assets; in this case, it would be utilities. The income produced is passed on to the investors (usually called unitholders). These payments are generally higher than a typical stock dividend because, relative to income trusts, non-income trusts use more of their income to fuel more growth instead of paying it out to shareholders.

Income trusts typically aim to pay out a consistent cash flow to their unitholders. It is important to remember that, like dividend-paying stocks, income trusts do not guarantee a dividend, though they strive to pay one. If the underlying business loses money, the trust can reduce or eliminate payouts altogether.

Understanding Utilities
A public utility is a company or organization that operates and maintains the infrastructure for a public service. Public utility companies are subject to state and government regulation, and can either be privately or publicly owned. The biggest difference between the two is that a privately-owned utility may be listed on a stock exchange. Prices charged by public utility companies are regulated by the state or local government. In order for a public utility to charge higher prices, it needs to get approval from a committee. However, these can often take time and have little to no guarantee that the rate increases will be approved. (To learn more about these companies, be sure to check out the Utilities Industry Handbook.)

Advantages of Utility Trusts
Public utility companies are relatively safe and constant when it comes to dividend return. This predictable dividend makes cash flows similar to a bond's cash flow, and therefore they react similarly to changes in interest rates - but not always. Also, like a bond, a higher yield generally means taking on higher risk. The income produced by the underlying utility companies held in a utility trust is easily passed along to the unit holders. The portfolio for a utility trust usually does not change often, which ensures a steady dividend stream if the underlying companies are stable.

The Government Cloud
When it comes to public utility companies, one cannot escape the role the government plays. Each utility company - whether private or public - has to deal with government regulations and red tape. The biggest trend among government in regards to public utilities is deregulation. As of September 2010, 27 states have either passed legislation or are in the process of restructuring the electric power industry (8 of those have suspended their restructuring for now).

Electric utilities have gone through the most dramatic change due to deregulation. Most public utility companies that deal with electricity no longer generate the power. Instead, they service and maintain the grid the power is delivered on. Private companies are now generating the power and selling it to the public utility companies. Investors thinking about public utilities need to be watchful of government regulations and climate when they choose this field. (To learn more about deregulation, read Free Markets: What's The Cost?)

One concern when it comes to this sector is that, thus far, governments have been hesitant to allow public utilities to raise rates, which makes it challenging to recoup their investment in capital spending and construction of new plants. Government regulations and the restriction on rate increases is what sent the public service of New Hampshire into Chapter 11 for the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Keeping an eye on the climate in Washington can help an investor looking to put their money into this sector.

When to Invest
When it comes to utilities, there are better times to buy than others, and it's important to remember that public utility companies are considered a defensive play. Tough economic times usually benefit utilities, as people still need water, electricity and natural gas to flow uninterrupted, regardless of the economy.

Also, lower interest rates make the steady and high dividend yields offered by utility companies an attractive place to invest. Those interested in capturing income from their investments look to utility companies as a good place to put their money. Keep an eye on a turning market and rising rates, which typically have an inverse effect on the public utilities' stock price. (For more defensive investing, read Guard Your Portfolio With Defensive Stocks.)

Green Movement
One of the biggest risks facing public utility companies is the green energy movement, and electric utility companies are feeling the pressure. Whether they create or buy the electricity, governments want the power to be created from renewable sources. This can be costly to upgrade and, with the existing government reluctance to allow public utility companies to recoup their capital expenditure through raising rates, it can hurt the dividend. Any time funds that could otherwise be paid out to shareholders in the form of dividends are instead used for improvement, lower cash flow to the investor in the short term is inevitable.

So be careful if your primary interest is on a steady dividend cash flow from utilities, and the utilities are making a lot of capital expenditures instead of paying it out as dividends.

When it comes to investing in utility trusts, one must look at the portfolio and the underlying companies carefully. The risks common to public utility companies should be screened by investors looking to invest their money with a utility trust. So, if there are risks that can affect the future dividend payout of one of these utilities, steer clear of that utility trust.

Summing It All Up
Utility trusts are a great way to invest in the public utility sector. Public utilities are a great place to invest in during tough economic times and tough market conditions. Their inverse relationship with interest rates means you can still make money when the economy is not doing as well. Trusts offer an investor an easy way to quickly diversify within the public utilities sector without having the costs that are associated with mutual funds. Dividends are paid out quickly to trustees, so earning a steady income is possible. (Learn more about the dividend and its importance in our related articles, The Power of Dividend Growth and The Importance Of Dividends.)