Investors on the hunt for reliable income often turn to the utility sector. Of course, there's good reason for this, since utility stocks operate highly consistent businesses that are quite literally a matter of national security. People need electricity, regardless of whether the economy is growing or in recession. As a result, their revenues are virtually assured, and their track records of stable cash flow and steady dividend payments are indeed impressive.
One such utility defensive-minded investors should consider right now is Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK). That's because Duke definitely fits the bill as a strong, well-run utility with solid profits and a high dividend yield.
Slow and steady wins the race
Last year, Duke Energy did what high-quality utilities do best. Specifically, the company produced strong growth in both revenue and earnings per share. And, Duke managed to cut costs as well, which helped support its generous dividend payments throughout the year. In all, Duke's revenue and profits grew by 25% and 50%, respectively.
Such strong results were realized from a combination of acquisitions and organic growth. The addition of Progress Energy, which Duke acquired last year, added significantly to growth. In addition, Duke achieved favorable rate outcomes and lowered costs through synergies related to its merger.
Duke's growth stands well above that of its competitors in the utilities space. For example, Consolidated Edison (NYSE:ED) posted just 1% growth in its profits from continuing operations last year, as well as 1% growth in revenue. This year will actually be a difficult one for ConEd, as its management expects earnings from ongoing operations to fall 1% at the midpoint of its 2014 guidance.
The same holds true for PPL Corporation (NYSE:PPL). Like Consolidated Edison, PPL managed a scant 1% increase in earnings from ongoing operations last year. This year, management expects operating earnings to fall by as much as 12%, driven primarily by challenges in its Supply segment. In that division, PPL expects earnings to fall from $0.39 last year to $0.07 this year. To try to improve the situation, management is committed to selling off its Montana hydro assets and cutting costs in the Supply unit. Still, such a drop in expected earnings is surprising for a utility.
It's clear that Duke outperformed its industry peers last year. Not surprisingly, it used a sizable portion of its profits to pay a high dividend to shareholders. Duke returned $3.09 per share to investors last year through its dividend, which represented a 2% increase from the $3.03 per share paid in 2012.
Duke has sufficient financial flexibility to provide further dividend increases in the future. It produced $4.35 per share in adjusted EPS last year, meaning its payout ratio stands at a comfortable 71%. That should give more than enough room for management to keep increasing its dividend at a modest rate and investing to grow the business.
Going forward, Duke management expects solid growth to continue for the foreseeable future, due to further transmission growth and additional cost cuts. The company expects to generate between 4%-6% growth in adjusted earnings per share per year through 2016.
Why you can count on Duke Energy
Utility stocks can be extremely valuable, especially in times like these when economic growth remains muted. A well-run electric utility like Duke Energy offers the stability of a highly stable business model, reliable profits, and consistent quarterly dividends. This is especially true in an investing climate like this, where yield is hard to come by due to interest rates that are near historic lows. That's why Duke and its 4.3% yield should be on your radar if you're interested in receiving reliable income.
Electricity is something people will use regardless of the current state of the overall economy, and as a result, it's extremely likely Duke Energy will keep profits and dividends flowing through to investors for many years to come.
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Bob Ciura has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.