For 2019, the average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio for the utilities sector was approximately 28.23. This number applies to water, electricity, and gas utilities, as well as any ancillary companies that independently produce or distribute power. Looking forward to the remainder of 2020, analysts project a 39.18 P/E ratio, which is well above the 23.35 market-wide P/E ratio estimates.

The Price-Earnings Metric

The P/E ratio is a traditional equity evaluation measure. Calculated by dividing current stock price by earnings per share, the P/E is one of the simplest, most straightforward tools for reflecting the market's consensus of a company's growth prospects. A relatively higher P/E generally indicates market expectations that a company will continue expanding its earning potential and generating revenue, all of which is a tremendous draw to shareholders.

The Utilities Sector

The utilities sector experienced an unusually strong year in 2019. Broadly considered to be dividend-income producing investments, utilities stocks performed as well as 10-year U.S. Treasury notes. For evidence of this, look no further than the three highest dividend-producing utilities sector stocks listed on the S&P 500 Index:

  • PPL Corp., an Allentown, Pennsylvania utility holding company that engages in the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity, boasted 5.27% dividends.
  • Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy Inc., which provides electricity and natural gas to businesses, homes, and wholesale consumers, had 4.52% dividends.
  • Southern Co., an Atlanta, Georgia electric sales holding company, boasted 4.01% dividends, despite showing negative returns for the year. 

Utilities led the pack when it came to total returns for the year. Consider the following 2019 12-month figures:

  1. Utilities: 27.1% total returns
  2. Real Estate: 24.5% total returns
  3. Energy: 22.2% total returns
  4. Consumer Staples: 16.6% total returns
  5. Information Technology: 7.1% total returns
  6. Communication Services: 4.8% total returns
  7. Consumer Discretionary: 1.8%
  8. Financials: 1.4% total returns

The healthcare, industrials, and materials sectors fell into negative total return numbers for 2019.

Built-In Advantages

Utility stocks enjoy baked-in advantages that enable their success. For one thing, the stability provided by the government allows them to function as monopolistic entities within their respective regions. Decreased competition radically reduces operational risk. For this reason, investors often incorporate utility stocks into their asset allocation mixes, as a means of hedging overall portfolio risk.