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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023




First it was IBM. Then it was AT & T.; Now another “safe” investment is about to come apart.

This time it’s electric utilities widely held by older people for dividend income and steady-if-unspectacular growth. They’re also being pitched to baby boomers today as a haven if other stocks drop.

But utility investors today can’t rely on the lessons of the past. Deregulation is going to spin through this stuffy industry like a twister. Sometimes the stocks will hold up, sometimes they won’t.

Nevertheless, utilities carry two interesting investment stories.

Story One, for traditional income investors: You can find good utility stocks that are yielding nifty dividends between 5 and 6 percent, compared with nearly 6 percent on medium-term bonds. And unlike bonds, utilities often raise the dividends they pay.

But deregulation may change all this, warn the researchers at the Washington International Energy Group (WIEG). In a recent survey, 42 percent of investor-owned utilities said that, over time, they expect to reduce the portion of earnings they pay out in dividends.

So you can’t blindly buy your local utility anymore. You have to evaluate its potential for future growth.

Story Two, for those seeking capital gains: You’re looking at an interesting opportunity.

Utility stocks got hammered in 1994, when interest rates rose (interest rates and utility-stock prices move in opposite directions). They got hammered again as investors worried about the turmoil deregulation will likely bring. Laggard stocks are a favorite contrarian buy.

The tricky bit is finding stocks that can prosper in a less-regulated world.

To be blunt, utility chief executives haven’t had to be too bright, except at outwitting state regulators. Now, their safe monopolies are going to be torn apart.

The process is already under way in California, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Several other states are almost ready to move.

To prod the slowpokes, both Congress and the White House are considering bills that would set a date for competition to begin say, around 2001.

Eventually, most utilities will no longer own their neighborhoods. Marketers of electrical power will buy where it’s cheap and deliver it to distant customers for less than they’re paying now.

Households and small companies probably won’t see their costs decline by very much except in high-priced cities such as Chicago, San Diego and New York, says WIEG President Roger Gale.

Huge discounts are in the offing, however, for major commercial and industrial firms. As a result, selling electrical power will become a less-profitable enterprise.

The winners in this business will be the low-cost producers. That means charging a retail price of no more than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, says Lowell Miller of Miller/Howard Investments in Woodstock, N.Y., which runs the small BTB Fund and Total Return Utilities Fund.

The transmission part of the industry the wires that let people turn on their lights will remain a monopoly, with regulated profits and rates.

To grow their earnings and dividends, utilities will have to be more entrepreneurial. Their chief executives are preparing for a historic shopping spree merging with other utilities, buying natural gas companies, joint venturing with telecommunications companies. Some will buy wisely, some none too well.

With all these crosscurrents at work, it’s smarter to own a portfolio of utilities than to pin your hopes on one or two, says David Kiefer, manager of the Prudential Utilities Fund. Some funds lean toward income and some lean toward growth.

Here are some examples of each, from Morningstar analyst Peter Di Teresa:

Traditional income investors will want quality stocks whose dividends they think they can trust. They might look at Colonial Utilities and Vanguard’s Specialized Utilities Income.

Growth-and-income investors might look for funds that also buy utilities abroad say, Franklin Global or AIM Global. Prudential Utilities also has a big foreign stake today.

The MFS Utilities fund hunts for growth among smaller stocks. Linder Utility takes a broad enough view of the industry to include satellite companies and cable TV.

Some funds beef up their performance by buying nonutility stocks something to check before you buy.

Here’s how WIEG sums up the industry outlook. For some utilities, it’s too late to survive. For others, there’s a three-year window in which to recreate themselves. For the future: “Watch out, as marketing of electricity becomes North America’s most costly and risky business.”

Not a soul knows how it will all turn out.

Tips for home-sellers

Are you thinking of selling your home yourself, without going through a real estate broker? Some suggestions:

– Get a professional appraisal to help you price the house. That might cost $200 to $300. A broker might also help, if you promise the broker the listing if you fail to sell.

– Expect to cut your price to something under the market price. Buyers know you’re saving the broker’s commission and will want you to share the savings with them. But you’ll still save half or more of the commission, and your house may sell faster if it’s lower-priced.

– Put up a professionally printed yard sign, saying For Sale By Owner, By Appointment Only. According to industry sources, a large percentage of homes are sold to people who saw the sign while cruising the neighborhood.

– Advertise in the newspaper classifieds. You’ll find FSBOs on the Internet, but I don’t know how effective they are.

– See a lawyer or escrow agent before you start to get the legal documents you need, such as a binder agreement for earnest money.

– Don’t be impatient. Houses may take two to six months to sell, and sometimes more. All during that time, you’ll have to work weekends so you have to believe that the savings are worth the work.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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