For income-seeking investors, the stock market sell-off earlier this year has created some interesting opportunities to lock in more attractive dividend yields. Take utilities Emera (TSX:EMA) and Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (NYSE:BIP), which have declined by double digits this year even though they reported a big uptick in cash flow last year. Because of that sell-off, and the fact that both recently raised their payouts, their yields are now at more attractive levels: 5.5% for Emera and 4.6% for Brookfield.
While that yield difference alone might be good enough for some investors to choose Emera over Brookfield Infrastructure, there are a few other factors to consider that might tilt the scale the other way.
The bull case for Emera Incorporated
Though Emera is a Canadian company, it operates utility-like businesses across much of North America. In fact, the largest contributor to earnings -- at 46% -- is Florida utility Tampa Electric. Emera also distributes electricity and gas in New Mexico and New England, as well as in eastern Canada and parts of the Caribbean. That said, one commonality among these businesses is that they all generate relatively steady cash flow, which enables Emera to invest in growth projects and pay a growing dividend -- it's increased its payout at an 8.7% compound annual rate since 2010.
Looking ahead, Emera believes it can continue boosting its dividend at an 8% compound annual rate at least through 2020 while maintaining a conservative payout ratio of 70% to 75% of cash flow. Powering that forecast is the company's plan to invest more than $8 billion on expansion projects through 2021. In Florida, for example, it's spending several hundred million dollars on solar power projects, with the early phases expected to start up later this year and add $12 million in annual earnings in 2018, while future ones should produce about $50 million in yearly profits by 2021. Investments like that put it on pace to generate a steadily growing income stream for investors over the next few years.
The bull case for Brookfield Infrastructure Partners
Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, meanwhile, also makes most of its money by operating utility-like businesses. That said, it's quite different from Emera in many aspects. For example, utilities only supply the company with about 52% of its earnings and the bulk of these assets are in South America and Europe. In addition, the company operates a diverse set of infrastructure assets including toll roads, ports, pipelines, and communication towers. Finally, Brookfield is a publicly traded partnership, which shares many of the same characteristics as master limited partnerships.
However, at its core, Brookfield generates stable cash flow from these businesses, which gives it the money to invest in expansion projects as well as pay a lucrative cash distribution to investors. Over the last decade, the company has been able to grow earnings at a 21% compound annual rate, which powered 11% yearly growth in the distribution. Looking ahead, Brookfield believes it can grow earnings at a 6% to 9% yearly rate, which would fuel a similar growth rate in the distribution even as it maintains a more conservative payout ratio of 60% to 70% of cash flow.
The sole driver of this forecast, though, is organic growth, including the $2.6 billion of expansion projects it has under way. That's noteworthy because the company has a history of making needle-moving acquisitions that have helped fuel its double-digit distribution growth rate. It currently sees several exciting acquisition opportunities, including water utilities, that could allow it to deliver faster-paced distribution growth in the coming years. In addition to that acquisition-driven upside, Brookfield also boasts a stronger balance sheet than Emera, which is still working to reduced debt from 62% of its capitalization to its target of 55% by 2020.
Higher potential returns with less risk
Although Emera has a higher yield, Brookfield Infrastructure Partners offers a bit more upside because of its ability to grow faster via acquisitions. While those tend to be lumpier, the latter has a knack for making needle-moving deals that should enable it to increase its payout at or above its target range over the next several years. With its stronger balance sheet and greater diversification, Brookfield positions investors to potentially earn higher total returns with less risk than Emera, which makes it the better buy in my opinion, especially in light of its double-digit drop this year.