From One Of The Best, To One Of The Worst: Exelon Corporation (EXC), The Southern Company (SO)

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I don’t like being wrong about a company, but what I hope to do is limit my losses when I realize my investment thesis is off the mark. Peter Lynch once said that in the market there was no way to be right 100% of the time. He said in stocks if just 60% of the time he was right he would be very happy. For those who have an open mind about Exelon Corporation (NYSE:EXC), it’s time to re-evaluate why you own this stock.

Exelon Corporation (NYSE:EXC)I Lost Money, But I Still Sold
I’ll readily admit that I owned Exelon and lost money on the shares. I owned the shares primarily for the yield, and when the company hinted that the dividend might have to be cut, I sold. When you buy a company primarily for their yield, and the yield is called into question, you leave. The problem many investors have is they can’t stand the idea of losing money.

When a company pays a dividend, the tendency is to wait for enough dividend payments to lower your cost basis and then get out. The problem is, utilities that have to cut their dividend don’t always turn around in an immediate reversal of fortune. Based on the fact that Exelon’s stock has actually increased a bit since the dividend cut, I’m not sure investors are really paying attention to the facts.

4 Big Problems
Exelon has four big problems, and none of them are easy to solve. Given the alternatives, there just isn’t a great case to be made for the company’s stock.

The first issue facing Exelon is the most obvious; their yield isn’t what it once was. With the dividend cut, the company’s current yield is about 3.9%. If you look at several of their competitors, this yield just isn’t good enough. Investors have the choice of Duke Energy Corp (NYSE:DUK) paying a 4.4% yield, The Southern Company (NYSE:SO). paying a 4.49%, or Integrys Energy Group, Inc. (NYSE:TEG) paying a 4.84% yield. With these better options, why would anyone settle for 3.9%?

The second issue investors seem to be ignoring is, Exelon is the only utility in this group that analysts expect to show earnings compression over the next few years. While Duke, Southern Co., and Integrys are expected to grow earnings at 2.95%, 4.86%, and 5.5%, respectively; Exelon is expected to show a decrease in the double-digits.

Exelon also shows the lowest operating margin of the group. In the current quarter, Southern Co. was the leader in operating margin at 34.46%. Duke came in second with an operating margin of 16.04%, and Integrys reported a margin of 12.17%. By comparison, Exelon’s margin was just 11.2%. For those who believe Exelon’s large nuclear infrastructure will provide some sort of cost advantage, that just isn’t happening at the current time.

While the company’s lower dividend yield would seem to solve the company’s dividend issue, I’m not sure this is the case. In the last four quarters, Exelon’s free cash flow payout ratio was 78.6%. However, in the current quarter, Exelon actually reported over $500 million in negative free cash flow. It’s true that Duke Energy reported negative free cash flow both this year and last. However, Duke’s merger with Progress offers cost savings for future margin and cash flow improvement. While Southern Co. showed a 456% free cash flow payout in the current quarter, last year the company’s free cash flow payout was a reasonable 61%. Competitor Integrys showed a seemingly high 251% payout ratio in their current quarter, but again last year they managed a payout ratio of just 51%. The bottom line is, with Exelon reporting negative free cash flow, even the lower dividend may not be safe.

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