Utilities sector overview
Falling interest rates, a shift in market leadership and concerns that we may be at a near-term peak in economic growth have led to better performance for the utilities sector. We continue to hold the group at marketperform.
Market outlook for the utilities sector
The utilities sector continues to be a bit volatile, performing better when growth and trade concerns resurface and interest rates fall, and underperforming when those concerns fade. We don’t believe at this time that the times of outperformance are sustainable, and are concerned that valuation levels for the group are above historical levels, according to data compiled by Yardeni Research. As a result, we aren’t yet upgrading the group, but due to growing growth concerns and trade tensions, we are suggesting that investors use times when the utilities sector is suffering, usually when the overall market is rising, to gradually add to utilities positions, especially if you are underweight the group at this point. While we still warn against using high-yielding equities as a replacement for fixed income, the dividend yield can be attractive in this low-yield environment.
We think U.S. economic data will continue to show growth, but the rate of growth appears to be slowing, as evidenced by the lower gross domestic product (GDP) growth projections by the Atlanta and New York Federal Reserve banks. This could make the traditionally defensive utilities sector more attractive. Inflation readings have perked up, but remain contained for now, with the Core Consumer Price Index posting a modest 2.2% year-over-year rise in July. This could entice investors into the higher-yielding utilities sector.
There are some additional positives for the sector, as some of the fundamentals in the utilities sector have perked up. BCA Research recently reported that electricity production was rising.
We aren’t overly bullish on the utilities sector, and it still seems unlikely to be a substantial outperformer in our minds, but we believe the elevated trade tensions and deterioration in global growth warrants some gradual adding to utilities positions, and making sure a portfolio is at least marketweight.
Factors that may affect the utilities sector
Positive factors for the utilities sector include:
- Improvement in housing: An improving housing market could lead to higher electricity demand in developing areas, and we're seeing signs that may be occurring as electricity production is growing again.
- Attractive dividends: Dividend-paying stocks could remain attractive compared to relatively low yields on conservative fixed-income products. And should economic prospects decline, defensive, dividend-paying stocks could become even more attractive.
Negative factors for the utilities sector include:
- High fixed costs: Capacity growth has been rising, which has been a sign of underperformance for the sector in the past.
- Accelerating economic growth: This would likely make the defensive utilities sector less attractive.
- Rising interest rates: This would make the dividend-paying utilities sector less competitive with fixed income investments. Additionally, relatively high debt ratios in the sector could be problematic.
Clients can see our top-rated stocks in the utilities sector.
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