The S&P 500 may be up 2% year-to-date but its still off more than 5% since hitting new highs in late January. As the outlook for global economic growth is starting to turn a bit sour, equity investors are looking for more defensive stock investments. Typically, utilities do not perform well when bond yields are rising. Despite that, Leuthold Group's Scott Opsal at the calls them “the quintessential defensive equity play, given their regulated profit structure and monopoly positions in most markets,” according to a recent article by Barron’s. The contrarian quant research firm is bullish on ONE Gas Inc. (OGS), NextEra Energy Inc. (NEE) and Eversource Energy (ES), as strong defensive utility plays even as interest rates rise.
The current yield on the 10-year Treasury bond is sitting at 2.97%, up more than 0.5% since the start of the year. Meanwhile, the Utilities Select Sector SPDR (XLU) is down 4.7% on the year, as of the close of trading on Thursday. But well-run utilities with strong fundamentals still present attractive alternatives to bonds as the strength of global growth fades and market sentiment becomes increasingly pessimistic. (To read more, see: The Return of Relative Value to Defensive Stocks).
With a year to date decline of 1%, the natural gas distributor located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is at least outperforming the XLU utility benchmark. The stock is trading at a 2.69% forward annual dividend yield, 0.28% below the 10-year Treasury. ONE Gas also surprised analysts with a first quarter earnings per share (EPS) of $1.72 that beat analyst forecasts of $1.48.
Unlike the broader market, stock of this Fortune 200 company is up on the year, having climbed 2.6% since the start of 2018. It trades at a forward annual dividend yield of 2.80%, and also beat analyst forecasts for its first quarter earnings, reporting an EPS of $1.94 compared to estimates of $1.78.
Strong population growth in Florida, where the company is headquartered has benefited NextEra. Jennison fund's Bobby Edemeka believes the energy provider will be able to expand profits by 8% per year through 2020, which will contribute to growing dividend payments, according to Barron’s. Jennison manages $173.3 billion in assets for clients, according to the firm's website.
Shares of this New England-based Fortune 500 energy company is down more than 8% on the year, but trade at a forward annual dividend yield of 3.38%, almost half a percentage point above the 10-year Treasury yield. The company met analyst forecasts in its most recent earnings report with a $0.85 reported EPS versus the consensus forecast of $0.85.
In the opinion of Phil Sundell, portfolio manager of the American Century Value fund, Eversource maintains a strong balance sheet, with net debt to capital sitting at around 54%, according to Barron’s. (To read more, see: Why Morgan Stanley Favors Dull Utility Stocks Over Techs).
Although these three stocks present attractive utility equity plays, not all utilities are necessarily safe bets. One other potential winning utility stock mentioned by Barron’s is Sempra Energy (SRE), a natural gas utility holding company based in San Diego, California. While the stock is basically flat on the year, the negative earnings surprise from the company’s first quarter earnings report will likely weigh heavily on the stock.