Utilities Finally Light Up on Wall Street

Electric-utility stocks shone like halogen bulbs last year, with most beating the overall market.

After four years of trailing the broad averages, these normally stodgy shares really turned on the juice in November.

"The group attracted attention for their defensive characteristics," says Douglas Fischer, an analyst with A.G. Edwards, a brokerage based in St. Louis.

Asia's financial crisis had sent most stocks plunging. And falling interest rates meant utility stocks, prized for their steady, above-average dividends, rose like bond prices.

The A.G. Edwards index of electric-utility stocks surged 30 percent last year. It is down about 3 percent this month.

Another positive factor: a calmer view of electric-power deregulation.

State regulators are moving toward more competition but at a pace and in a manner that no longer looks so threatening to big, traditional power suppliers.

Until recently investors were "scared to death," as Dan Rudakas, an analyst at Everen Securities in Chicago, puts it.

They worried about loss of profits to price competition and that many utilities would be unable to recover the costs of old plants, especially expensive nuclear facilities.

But so far, state regulators have decided to compensate utilities for the bulk of these so-called "stranded costs."

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