Editors' pick: Originally published Jan. 19.
Companies that offer products or services that will always be in demand are smart investments, especially in troubled times.
Electric utilities are a perfect example of this. Even though a sagging economy may reduce demand for electricity at the margins, households and businesses will always rely upon electricity.
What's more, this sector is regulated, and utility stocks are known for offering stable dividends. Three attractive electric utility stocks right now are Great Plains Energy (GXP) , Xcel Energy (XEL) - Get Report and Black Hills (BKH) - Get Report .
1. Great Plains Energy
Great Plains Energy is the holding entity for Kansas City Power & Light Company and KCP&L Greater Missouri Operations.
The stock is down only 0.4% so far this year, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen 7.5%.
With a dividend yield of 3.9%, Great Plains could help secure your portfolio amid this difficult and uncertain climate.
Additionally, a track record of growing dividends since 2011 and a comfortable payout ratio of 75% cement Great Plains' ability to maintain its income generating potential, putting it in an elite class of dividend-paying assets.
In the third-quarter conference call, management said, "As we look forward to 2016 and beyond, our earnings growth will be driven by targeted investments and a regulated utility infrastructure and continued disciplined cost in capital management. In addition, investment in national transmission and a growing regional economy support a solid earnings growth profile."
This stock seems to have the potential to deliver solid gains in 2016.
The company hasn't yet reported results for the fourth quarter of 2015, but the year isn't shaping up to be particularly stellar, judging from analysts' estimates. On average, analysts expect earnings per share to come in at $1.40, down from $1.57 in 2014. But analysts expect EPS to rise again in 2016, to $1.76.
With a price-to-earnings ratio of 14.7, based on earnings estimates, Great Plains belongs to a group of good value and dividend buys. Note that the forward P/E make it cheaper than peers Duke Energy (14.8), NextEra Energy (16.4) and American Electric Power (15.1).
2. Xcel Energy
Xcel Energy is a major U.S. electric and natural gas company. It has operations in eight Midwestern and Western states. The company serves 3.5 million electricity customers and 2 million natural gas customers through four operating arms.
Xcel delivers a strong 3.5% dividend yield, better than peers TECO Energy and Portland General Electric. It also boasts an enviable 12-year history of dividend hikes. The company's payout ratio of 61.2% is indicative of its abilities to continue to drive dividends.
In fact, this is among a rare breed of stocks that has seen gains in 2016. Xcel Energy has gained 2.9% so far this year. The company is expected to deliver low single-digit earnings growth for the next five years, in line with the S&P 500. Barclays analysts have listed Xcel as among the utilities that could outperform the market this year as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates.
Xcel's management has reiterated its expectation to grow EPS by 4%-6%, dividends by 5%-7% and maintain a dividend payout ratio target of 60%-70% -- reassuring numbers from a total-returns perspective for its investors.
Lastly, the company has a plethora of robust future objectives: improve utility performance, implement workforce rationalization initiatives and invest in a clean power plan, grid modernization and transmission activities.
3. Black Hills
And to round off this list, we've saved the best for last: Black Hills. This stock offers a nifty 3.4% yield and is well-equipped for the road ahead with a nearly $1.9 billion SourceGas Holdings acquisition.
Black Hills, though, has a history of bold and game-changing buys, with 19 previous acquisitions.
Although analysts on average expect the company to report EPS of $2.96 for 2015, up only 2.4% from 2014, and declining EPS in 2016, the company has a history of beating the industry average for net income growth.
The SourceGas acquisition should soon help it continue this trajectory.
There's no doubting Black Hills' strong capital return policies. In fact, shareholders have received growing dividends for a mind-boggling 46 years (since 1970). In terms of strategy, we like the company's oil and gas transition blueprint, which improves its business-risk profile and provides utility growth opportunities.
Analysts have a 12-month median price target of $54 for the company, suggesting the stock can gain a nice 14% from recent levels.
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.