If you are in your 70s, you're likely looking for dividend income. But you don't want to chase high-yield stocks, because that could lead you into a yield trap. Which is where utility industry stalwarts like Duke Energy Corp (NYSE: DUK) and Southern Company (NYSE: SO) come in. Both Duke and Southern should be on your short list today -- here's why.
1. Upping growth expectations
Duke Energy is a largely regulated domestic electric and natural gas utility serving 7.4 million electric customers and 1.5 million gas customers. The stock yields around 4.2%, and the dividend has been increased every year for 13 consecutive years. But the company has been paying dividends for 90 years.
The real story at Duke, however, is that the utility has made important changes to chart a new course to faster growth. It sold its foreign energy business and its fossil fuel merchant business in the United States, both of which were hampering results and faced increasingly uncertain futures. While working toward extracting itself from these assets, Duke was building a renewable energy merchant business and branched into natural gas with the 2016 acquisition of Piedmont Natural Gas. Piedmont brought with it a growing regulated gas distribution business and fee-based midstream assets.
There were a lot moving parts involved in this process, but the heavy lifting appears to be done. And all these efforts have reaped some pretty impressive results: Between 2009 and 2014 Duke's dividend grew at an annualized rate of 2% a year. After the company started to reshape its business, that rate doubled to 4% between 2014 and 2016. And now that the company is largely done with its corporate makeover, dividends and earnings are projected to grow at around 5%.
With a business largely backed by regulated assets and facing ample opportunity to continue investing in those assets (which is a big part of the company's growth plan today), Duke offers a solid dividend. And that dividend is again outpacing inflation growth, making this a good time to take a deep dive if you are looking for a reliable dividend payer with a big yield.
2. Dark clouds and silver linings
The next high-yield utility to look at is Southern Co. This electric and natural gas utility serves roughly 9 million customers, largely in the Southeastern United States. The yield is an impressive 4.7% (or so), backed by 15 years of annual dividend hikes. And the company has paid a dividend since 1948 without a single dividend cut.
If you pay any attention to the news, however, you probably know that Southern Co is having trouble with two big construction projects. It's been trying to build a clean-coal power plant and a new nuclear-power facility. Neither has gone well, with both facing rising costs and extensive delays. Most recently, Southern has had to deal with the bankruptcy of the company it hired to build the nuclear plant. These problems weren't part of the plan, but Southern is a very strong company.
For example, even after all of the bad news, management still expects earnings to grow at an annualized rate of around 5% a year through 2022. That should be more than enough to support continued dividend growth for this largely regulated business. And while the big projects have garnered the most attention, Southern has been holding its own everywhere else.
For example, the company has been shifting, along with the broader utility industry, toward natural gas. It got 60% of its power from coal in 2010, but only 33% in 2016. Natural gas increased from 25% to 46% of the company's energy mix over that span. (In other words, Southern has been building gas-powered plants.) Like Duke, Southern bought a gas utility last year, a deal that brought with it regulated gas customers and midstream assets that it can use as a foundation to expand. And also like Duke, Southern has been expanding in the clean-power sector through its independent power subsidiary.
Owning Southern means you have to deal with some headline risk -- there are clear negatives here. But there are also positives taking shape in the background that will drive the utility into the future. If you are in your 70s, you can benefit from investors' concerns today to pick up this high yielder.
More than big yields
There are a few common themes with Duke and Southern Co: They are both regulated businesses backed by long dividend histories. They are making efforts to change along with the shifting energy landscape. And their management teams are projecting solid, though perhaps not exciting, growth. These are the kinds of dividend-paying companies that could keep your portfolio on solid ground while you collect dividend checks every quarter. So you should consider buying these two stocks if you are in your seventh decade of life.
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