As a "tech company" providing wireless and fiber-optic services, Southern is quite fond of issuing press releases. Over the past month or so, I count more than a dozen company-issued press releases, of which only two are of any real import to investors. As a general rule, Fools are leery of companies that talk too much -- for fear they may be acting too little. Why, fellow Fool Tim Beyers even wrote a column on the subject, a real classic titled Press Release Bingo. (If you haven't read it yet, do so -- your portfolio will thank you.)
Investors in Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation Southern, however, have little to fear in that regard. Southern doesn't just talk; it does stuff. Actually, in its utility persona, Southern does an awful lot of stuff, from producing the electricity needed for cooling its 4 million customers in the summer to providing the natural gas needed to keep those customers warm in winter. And most important for dividend-loving Fools, Southern pays a whopping 4.4% dividend -- twice the going rate on the S&P.
This brings us to the first piece of real news Southern put out over the past few weeks. On April 18, Southern announced its fourth consecutive annual dividend hike. From this day forward, holders of its stock will receive $1.49 per share from this steady performer.
How steady, you ask? Well, that's the other bit of news. On April 26, Southern reported its fiscal first-quarter 2005 earnings. Those declined 2.4% year over year, for which the company blamed reduced demand for electricity among its residential customers. Total revenues for the quarter actually increased, however, which makes the company's suggestion that slackening consumer demand caused its earnings to decline sound a little strange.
Judging from its 10-Q, the real culprit for Southern's earnings decline was that expenses simply rose faster than revenues. While revenues came in 5% higher in Q1 2005 than in Q1 2004, fuel costs rose 10%, depreciation (a non-cash expense) increased 22%, and maintenance cost the company 24% more.
The good news for Southern investors, then, would be that: (1) with oil prices on the decline, fuel costs should moderate going forward; (2) depreciation, being non-cash, is really a non-issue; and (3) that leaves only maintenance costs to worry about. And really, whatever the cost, would you really want your company to skimp on maintaining its equipment?
Southern has risen more than 23% since its recommendation to Income Investor subscribers. That beats the S&P 500 by more than 5%, and even more extraordinary, it does so while being just 10% as volatile as the overall market. Analyst Mathew Emmert believes this company will continue to offer some of the safest market-beating returns available for years to come.
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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in Southern Company.