Southern Comfort and Stability

A pair of southeastern public utilities have bucked the sloppy market trend and checked in with generally solid third-quarter earnings.

The Southern standby
Atlanta-based Southern Company (NYSE: SO  ) earned $780.4 million, or $1.01 for the quarter, compared to $762 million, and $1.00 a share a year ago. Revenues for the quarter were $5.43 billion, up 12.4% from last year's third quarter.

It appears that Southern Company's earnings would have been higher but for a milder summer in its market area than a year ago, a sluggish economy, and the difficult financial markets that we all know so much about. Company CEO David Ratcliffe noted that, while his region is suffering the same stresses as other parts of the country, the effects on it have been less severe. Southern Company's primary areas of operations occur in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

And down to Gatorland
Slightly to the south of Southern Company's areas of activity, FPL Group (NYSE: FPL  ) , which operates primarily on the east and lower west coasts of Florida (hardly hotbeds of real estate vibrancy), also checked in with a reasonably solid quarter. After excluding an array of financial engineering gobbledygook ("the mark-to-market effect of non-qualifying hedges ..."), the group's adjusted earnings were $506 million, or $1.25 a share, up from $494 million, or $1.23 a share for the same quarter of 2007.

But given the less-than-stellar economic and credit conditions, FPL has announced plans to lower its capital expenditures for 2009 to $5.3 billion, from the previously planned $7 billion. Much of the reduction will include the deferral of new projects at FPL Energy, the company's "competitive energy subsidiary," much of whose efforts involve the development of wind energy.

Sector stability
It strikes me that certain public utilities have become more compelling amid the extreme market volatility of the past year. In addition to the two above, we'll receive results in the next days and weeks from the likes of Entergy (NYSE: ETR  ) , Dominion (NYSE: D  ) , PG&E (NYSE: PCG  ) , and Duke (NYSE: DUK  ) . The total combination will provide better depth on the overall attractiveness of the sector.

In the meantime, as I look at the two that have reported thus far, I'm especially inclined to suggest that my Foolish friends keep a close eye on Southern Company. It appears to have benefited from the general strength of its operating area, its solid margins, and a forward dividend yield that is tickling 5%. In the midst of our helter-skelter, loop-de-loop market conditions, it just may offer a welcome combination of current income and relative stability.

Southern Company and FPL Group have both received five-star ratings from Motley Fool CAPS members. Why not add your votes to each?

For related Foolishness:

Southern Company and Duke Energy are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Test-drive any of our newsletters without charge for 30 days.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your questions and your comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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