Reliable Growth Powers Southern
02/20/2014 7:00 am EST
We believe this is an ideal time to build positions in one of America's most reliable companies, says Roger Conrad in Conrad's Utility Investor.
Southern Company (SO), the Georgia-based power company, recently released its fourth quarter and full year results. And, as has been the case year after year, the numbers clearly show the kind of reliable growth needed to fuel more dividend growth.
Reported, or “headline,” earnings per share were hit, as expected, from a 3 cents per share non-cash write off of construction costs for the state-of-the-art Kemper coal gasification power plant in Mississippi.
The plant will burn dirty, but cheap, lignite coal from an adjacent mine, though not before essentially stripping out, virtually, all pollutants including carbon dioxide. Start up is expected later this year.
Stripping out the charge, Southern's fourth quarter net rose to 48 cents a share from 44 cents a year ago.
Among the key catalysts were continued successful capital spending—including for two new nuclear reactors of the AP 1000 design—and a 4.8% increase in sales to industrial customers.
The latter is part and parcel of the growth of America's new industrial heartland in the Southeast US. And it promises a multiplier effect for overall sales of electricity from regional economic expansion over, at least, the next several years.
Solid regional growth is ultimately the best possible guarantee of continued strong regulator relations.
That's the key to earning a fair return on, some, $17 billion in planned capital expenditures in the next three years, which, in turn, is the critical factor for Southern's continued growth of earnings and dividends.
Southern has traded at something of a discount to other utilities over the past year. Ironically, the main reason has been concern about its CAPEX budget.
These results, and the accompanying information, should go a long way toward easing these concerns.
It may be a while before Southern shares acquire the premium valuation they've held historically, particularly, given misguided fears about interest rates and solar power (the utility is already a major producer).
But results like these make it only a matter of time. And meantime, investors have an ideal time to build positions in one of America's most reliable companies.
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