Buying international equities is a good way to diversify your portfolio. When one economy weakens, another may strengthen, meaning diversifying your holdings geographically is a good way to insulate yourself against one country tanking. Even within a slow-and-steady sector such as utilities, international diversification is possible and might lead to improved results.
With that in mind, several well-run utilities happen to be located outside the United States. They don't often garner as much attention as their U.S.-based peers, even though they offer many of the same qualities. That's why, even though these international utilities might be flying under your radar, they're still worth a closer look.
Look abroad to power up your portfolio
National Grid (NYSE:NGG) is based in the United Kingdom, and its results are holding up well so far this year. Over the first half of its fiscal year, National Grid believes it is making good progress toward its full-year projections, in both its United Kingdom and U.S. operations. Earnings per share are 1% lower through the first half of its fiscal year, but management maintains its outlook for asset growth and earnings. In the meantime, investors are treated to a hefty dividend, which stands at 5%.
Going forward, National Grid management points to strong rate developments as reasons to be optimistic about its long-term outlook. The company recently secured a favorable eight-year price control in its regulated U.K. segment. And, positive rate case settlements in its U.S. business mean that management believes it will keep creating value for shareholders.
Look to the BRIC nations
Brazil, Russia, India, and China are poised to lead in global economic growth. Because their growth stands well above growth in the United States, companies that operate in these countries may outperform their U.S. peers. One such company is CPFL Energia (NYSE:CPL), one of the largest utilities in Brazil.
CPFL's growth is truly impressive and certainly reinforces the idea that emerging markets may be primed for outperformance. Total sales increased 4.7% in the third quarter, with the company's residential unit performing very strongly. Rising costs are a concern for CPFL, which is dragging down earnings this year.
This is due to the company's aggressive investment in new facilities, many of which are now coming on-line and should provide profits down the road. In particular, the company's Tauron Project involves the deployment of a smart grid in its key operating areas. Furthermore, management contends that the overall economic conditions in its markets are strengthening and should help results going forward.
A smaller Brazilian utility is Companhia Paranaense de Energia (NYSE:ELP), which also operates in other countries throughout South America. On the surface, COPEL looks to have struggled mightily so far in 2013. Third-quarter net income fell 14.5% year over year due to higher costs. However, there are strong underlying trends that COPEL should capitalize on, meaning it likely has a bright future ahead.
Several business trends are encouraging: COPEL's electricity sales to final customers grew 10% between January and September, for example. And, going forward, COPEL plans to enforce aggressive cost cuts to boost profitability. In all, COPEL will target 6% annual reductions in operating expenses between 2013 and 2017.
The Foolish takeaway
While investors probably most easily recognize the major U.S.-based utilities, it's worthwhile to take some time to consider international utilities as well. That's because they offer many of the same great characteristics as their domestic peers—namely, steady results and hefty dividends—with the added benefit of geographically diversifying your portfolio.
National Grid, CPFL, and COPEL are each well-run utilities that can give you exposure to faster growing economies. And, you can continue to collect their generous dividend payments. Near-term pressures remain, particularly for the Brazilian utilities, but underlying economic conditions keep improving. Strong economic growth in emerging markets is likely to propel good results in the years ahead. As a result, savvy investors might want to keep an eye on these three international utilities going forward.