Investing in electric utilities: nonnuclear stocks looking better

If you've held stock in an electric utility, the last six months have not been a cakewalk. Dancing on live high-tension wires is more like it. The latest zap to investor confidence occurred when Michigan's Consumers Power Company sent its nuclear plant construction workers packing last week. The company is now haggling with state officials and consumer groups over the incomplete project's fate and who picks up the $3.5 billion tab.

In 1984, five utilities, including Consumers Power, have either cut or omitted dividends. Value Line Investment Survey lists six more that may follow suit. All are wrapped up in nuclear construction projects. Nationwide, 48 nuclear plants are now being built. An ailing handful have generated enough negative press to pull down all electric utility stocks.

But a dichotomy is emerging between the performance of nuclear and nonnuclear stocks.

Since November, common stocks of companies with nuclear construction projects fell an average of 26 percent, the Salomon Brothers June Electric Utility research report says. Meanwhile, nonnuclear stocks slipped an average of 9 percent, slightly more than the Standard & Poor's 500.

Both declines may be disturbing for the ''widows and orphans'' who typically hold utility stocks. A study by Bear, Stearns & Co. showed that individuals, not institutions, own 78 percent of publicly traded utiltiies.

There are indications that nonnuclear stocks are headed upward, however.

''There was a time when all utilities were battered, six months ago,'' says Arthur H. Medalie, an analyst at Value Line. ''By and large, those without nuclear investments are recovering.''

Salomon Brothers analyst Mark D. Luftig concurs: ''We're upgrading electric utilities now from underperforming to matching the S&P 500 - with a few nuclear-related exceptions. They won't keep up in a very strong market, but utilities tend to lead the early part of an upturn. They should outperform the market over the next six months.''

Earnings are stronger than expected the first half of this year, and that bodes well for utility coffers not being sucked dry by nuclear construction projects, analysts say. Scorching heat in early June and an economy that doesn't know when to quit have combined to boost electricity consumption. The Edison Electric Institute reports that juice use is up 8.3 percent over last year - ''most certainly above the expected 5 to 5.5 percent,'' says Edison's economic research director, Bruce Humphrey.

As a result, ''you can no longer consider utility stocks as a homogeneous group,'' says Mr. Medalie at Value Line.

At Fidelity Group in Boston, Warren A. Casey agrees. ''Now there is a whole spectrum (of risk). From Consolidated Edison with $612 million in cash - it will be buying back a lot of stock - to Public Service Company of New Hampshire, which is hanging on the ropes.''

But the public's perception of the difference has been slow in coming, Mr. Casey says. As manager of Fidelity Select Utilities mutual fund, Casey has watched investors run from the very mention of electric utilities. His fund has few holdings in companies tied to nuclear plants being built. Yet, redemptions have sapped the fund: from a December high of $34 million to just under $20 million today, despite the fact that the fund has outperformed the market.

''Our fund has dropped 1.46 percent, compared with an 8.6 percent drop in the Dow and a 2.36 percent drop in Dow utilities,'' Casey says. '''With all that bad publicity earlier this year, money started to go out.''

What will happen to utilities tied to nuclear construction projects? Good news is scarce, and analysts remain cautious.

True, Public Service of New Hampshire did resume limited work Monday on its Seabrook project after a 10-week halt. Last month's successful $90 million bond offering and renegotiated debts will keep creditors from the door for a while. But PSNH is paying dearly for the capital. It took a 20 percent interest rate to lure investors, and PSNH and its partners must raise another $800 million. In fact, high interest rates put a burden on earnings for all utilities financing construction projects now.

Also, the regulatory environment remains uncertain. Will investors or ratepayers bear the brunt of construction costs? Mr. Luftig at Salomon Brothers expects leniency from those states that may soon face this question: ''The commissions will have learned a lesson from the problem states.''

Less sanguine is Robert Patterson at Arthur D. Little, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm. ''Unfortunately, regulators seem to be saying customers should not be responsible for the financial risk,'' says the regulatory economist. ''I don't see commissions providing flexibility for these companies to successfully recover costs.''

For some of these reasons, the Salomon Brothers research report says, ''. . . nuclear construction electrics are about as low as they will go, but we don't foresee any significant price advances in the group as a whole in the near term.''

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