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Will National Grid Help You Retire Rich?

Tuesday - 1/1/2013, 12:31am  ET

Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures to show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.

For generations, investors have counted on utilities to provide solid income and stability for conservative portfolios. Unlike most utilities, National Grid has a business that isn't limited to just the U.S., with major operations in the U.K. as well. Can international diversification make this company a better utility play than its competition? Below, we'll revisit how National Grid does on our 10-point scale.

The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.

Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.

When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:

  • Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
  • Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
  • Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
  • Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at National Grid.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

Size

Market cap > $10 billion

$41.4 billion

Pass

Consistency

Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years

2 years

Fail

 

Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years

2 years

Fail

Stock stability

Beta < 0.9

0.26

Pass

 

Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20%

(36.8%)

Fail

Valuation

Normalized P/E < 18

14.29

Pass

Dividends

Current yield > 2%

5.6%

Pass

 

5-year dividend growth > 10%

6.2%

Fail

 

Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years

2 years

Fail

 

Payout ratio < 75%

40.7%

Pass

       
 

Total score

 

5 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at National Grid last year, the company's score hasn't budged from its five-point showing. But the stock has done pretty well, posting a 15% gain over the past year.

To understand National Grid, you have to understand the dynamics of the utility industry in both countries that the company serves. In the U.S., National Grid focuses on the Northeast, which has seen a steady outflow of people and economic opportunity to faster-growing areas such as the Southeast and the Gulf Coast. As a result, National Grid faces an almost impossible task in trying to compete with powerhouses Southern and Duke Energy in terms of growth, simply because its customer base isn't as economically healthy.

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