In a new investing era of high volatility and what seem to be daily market-rattling headlines, consistency is a corporate virtue. There's something to be said for companies that provide their investors peace of mind, and in that vein, look no further than utility giant Southern Company (NYSE:SO).
For a company like Southern, you don't need to pay attention to the stock price every day, anxiously awaiting any bit of headline news that has the potential to bring a high-flying stock to its knees. Over the past decades investors could have simply bought Southern, forgotten about it, and become rich. And, while past performance is no guarantee of future results, there's nothing within Southern's strategy that leads me to believe it can't continue to enrich shareholders for many years to come.
"All the arrows in the quiver"
That's how Tom Fanning, chairman, president, and CEO of Southern described his company's energy portfolio. Southern Company uses a variety of energy sources, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables, resulting in a reduced risk profile. In all, Southern has invested over $20 billion into diversifying its energy sources, and going forward, spends about $5.5 billion in capital expenditures every year to ensure steady future growth.
Because of this, Southern does what you'd expect from a well-run utility. The company has a remarkable track record of providing reliable, stable results that allow its investors to sleep well at night. Over the first nine months of 2013, Southern generated earnings, excluding one-time charges, of $2.24 per share, compared with $2.26 per share through the same period last year. Results were negatively influenced by extremely cool temperatures and heavy rainfall—in fact, Southern's service territory experienced its highest level of rain in nearly 100 years—so I'm inclined to give the company the benefit of the doubt for its earnings dip.
Fortunately for shareholders, Southern uses a great deal of its profits to pay hefty dividends, which has allowed its long-term shareholders to reap quite the benefit.
Dividend history tells the story
It's frequently stated that over time, dividends have accounted for a large percentage of a company's total shareholder return. In Southern's case, that's especially true, and it goes to show the truly magical power of compounding interest over many years.
According to Southern, over the last 20 years, 70% of all shareholder returns have been derived from its dividend payments. That's been driven not just by the dividends themselves, but by reinvesting those dividends each and every year.
It may be tempting to dismiss the dividend track record of a utility. After all, utilities operate in a highly regulated environment in an industry that is critical to our very national security. As a result, you might think all utilities have tremendous dividend track records. But interestingly, that is often not the case.
Even a fellow well-run utility like Dominion Resources (NYSE:D) has had its share of struggles in providing regular dividend increases. Dominion held its dividend steady for ten years, from 1994 to 2004, and has had to play catch-up ever since. Even after strong dividend increases over the past few years, the stock's current yield stands at 3.4%, well below Southern's nearly 5% payout. Dominion is a strong utility in its own right, evident by the company increasing operating earnings by 3% through the first nine months of the year, but its dividend likely leaves a lot to be desired for income seekers.
Or, consider the outright roller coaster ride Exelon (NYSE:EXC) has taken its investors on over the past year. As a utility heavily reliant on nuclear operating in a merchant market, its underlying results have been extremely volatile over the past several months. Exelon increased third-quarter earnings by 1%, but reported a net loss in the first quarter of the fiscal year.
All this volatility has been at the direct expense of shareholders, who have seen Exelon's stock price drop by 36% since November 8, 2011, and earlier this year endured a 41% dividend cut. These kinds of whipsaw results should make Southern's reliability that much more valuable.
A successful past, and a bright future ahead
Southern's tremendous track record of stable results and dependable dividends mean shareholders have done awfully well over the past several decades. How well, you might ask? Consider that over any 10-year holding period over the last 30 years, Southern Company hit the top quartile of total shareholder returns 95% of the time. In other words, chances are that for those shareholders who bought and held, all the while resisting the urge to flip the stock for a quick gain, they've reaped huge rewards.
Southern plans to use the same recipe going forward that allowed it and its shareholders to do so well for so many years. That's why I believe Southern has plenty of profitable years in its future and should be the first choice for utility investors.