Listed German utility companies – part 1: Overview and E.on (ISIN DE000ENAG999)

In my small series about utility companies, it might make sense to start with those companies which are at least geographically in my “circle of competence”, Germany.

There are currently 8 listed companies which qualifiy one way or the other as “utilities” which are:

Ticker Name Mkt Cap EV/EBITDA T12M P/B P/E Dvd Yld
EOAN GR Equity E.ON SE 28,194 7.5 0.7   7.8
RWE GR Equity RWE AG 19,099 4.7 1.2 8.3 6.3
EBK GR Equity ENBW ENERGIE BADEN-WUERTTEMB 8,340 5.6 1.4 31.0 2.7
MVV1 GR Equity MVV ENERGIE AG 1,549 8.3 1.4 25.3 3.8
FHW GR Equity FERNHEIZWERK NEUKOELLN AG 72 6.8 2.1 15.6 4.5
MNV6 GR Equity MAINOVA AG 2,031 22.9 2.2 20.8 2.5
WWG GR Equity GELSENWASSER AG 1,887 17.8 2.3 19.3 3.2
LEC GR Equity LECHWERKE AG 2,198 20.0 2.7 22.6 3.2

Obviously, the large companies look the cheapest. Most of the smaller companies are in fact subsidiaries of the large players or owned by the Government such as:

– Lechwerke is owned ~90% by RWE
– Mainova is part of EON (91.3%)
– Gelsenwasser is owned by the government (92%)
– MVV is majority owned by the city of Mannheim (50.1%)
– EnbW is majority owned by the Government (85-90%)
– Fernheizwerk Neukölln is owned by Sweidish Vattenfall (80.1%)

RWE is de facto controlled by the regional government as well, only E.On to my knowledge does not have a controlling shareholder or significant Government influence.
s one could read in the press, the regulatory environment in Germany is supposed to be quite ugly, among others, the major issues are:

– unpredictable politics (close down of Nuclear power plants following Fukushima), the utilities are actually trying to sue the Governemnt for this
– heavily subsidized renewable energy (costs are added to the electricity bill for retail customers)
– relative low allowed yields on infrastructure which led the major players to shed electricity grids and gas pipelines
– heavy competition for instance for electricity. I just checked, where I am living (Munich), I got ~44 different offers for electricity

Going back to the “Buffet on utilities” approach, especially suing the Government (i.e. regulator) is maybe not a ver good long-term strategy if you then want to negotiate your next investment.

Another interesting aspect in my opinion is the fact, that especially the subsidiaries with purely local (regulated) focus show quite satisfying longterm ROEs.

10Y ROE 5Y ROE Debt/Equity
LECHWERKE AG 24.5% 13.9% 0.2%
GELSENWASSER AG 17.7% 12.5% 2.1%
MAINOVA AG 17.1% 9.1% 70.3%
MVV ENERGIE AG 10.3% 11.3% 107.6%
RWE AG 17.4% 15.4% 122.4%
E.ON AG 10.2% 1.8% 79.2%

I find especially Lechwerke, Fernheizwerk and Gelsenwasser fascinating. Without any leverage they manage to produce solid double-digit ROE’s over long periods of time. So looking at this one might think that both, for RWE and EON, the German regulator is maybe not the real reason for their current problems.

Rather bad management and failed international expansion are the drivers between the rather bad performance in the last few years. Eon for instance lost lot of money with gas contracts outside Germany.

This is also the major issue I have with E.on. For some reason, they believe that they must grow outside Germany, just recently they swapped German Hydro plants with Austrian Verbund against a 50% stake in a Turkish utility group. Earlier in 2012 they teamed up with Brazil’s Eike Batista to invest in Brazil. Some people might like this exposure to “growth markets”, but personally I think this is a quite risky strategy.

Again, if we look at the comparable performance between E.on and its listed German subsidiary Mainova, we can see that at least this German business performs quite well and consistent despite E.on’s claims of bad German regulation:

Some additional thoughts about E.on based on the 2011 annual report:

– Nuclear is not coming back, that was more than 1 bn of EBIT which is missing going forward
– 60% of sales are actually energy trading revenues. The results of this “sector” look quite volatile
– they show huge swings in the net results of financial derivatives. In 2010 for instance, E.on showed a net gain of 2.5 bn against a 2011 loss of -1 bn .
– E.on has around 17 bn liabilities for nuclear waste etc. This liability is hard to analyse and could be grossly over-/understated. In the notes they state that the discount rate they use is 5.2%. I think this is a rather high rate. Combined with the long duration of those liabilities, there could lurk a potential multi billion hole there as well as in the 14 bn pension liabilities
– another “whopper” are the 325 bn EUR (yes that’s three hundred twenty five billion) of outstanding fossil fuel purchase commitments. Disclosure is rather limited here but I guess this is one of the big problem areas where they have locked in Russian NatGas purchases at too high rates

On the plus side we could add:

+ maybe earnings were understated to put pressure on regulators and trade unions
+ positive effect from future reduction in interest rates

All in all, EON in the current form looks like a big black box to me. mostly due to the large trading activities which are not transparent at all. I would be not able to value the company. I also don’t think it is particularly well-managed. As there is no dominant shareholder, the major “upside catalyst” could come from an activist investor. In contrast, I think current management will most likely waste the cash flow in stupid “growth investments”.

Another issue, and that goes for most of the German utilities is the fact, that the combination of Nuclear exit and strongly subsidised local renewal energy production might have altered the business model going forward. So betting on a “reversion to the mean” might not necessarily work here, at least not in the short run.

Last but not least, I don’t see how I could have any “edge” in valueing E.on. It is a liquid large cap stock, with plenty of analyst coverage. True, sentiment is quite bad which is maybe a chance at some point in time but as a private investor with a small portfolio, this is not the first place to look for “value”.

Yes I know, for many “value investors”, a P/B of 0.77 and dividend yield of 7.6% would already be enough and maybe yield starved investors will bid up E.On stocks for the dividend, but looking 3.5 years ahead, I don’t see a real “Margin of safety” at current prices with the current management and strategy plus taking into account the fundamental issues mentioned above.


  • Did you find other unrealised gains for RWE except the listed Lechwerke?

  • Eon is a black box, I completely agree. You just can’t project with enough certainty where they will wast the next billion. 😉

  • To my knowledge “heavily subsidized renewable energy” is not the problem, but renewables have right of way. This means if there is too much renewable energy (Germany has not much energy storage), utilities have to shut down their conventional power-plants. Of course marketshare of renewables for the utilities is not as high as for conventional power sources. This is a huge risk and they never know how well they can utilize their capacities.

    Exit of nuclear energy increases output of CO2 per megawatt. Future CO2 prices are unknown. This is a disadvantage compared to french or czech competitors and new gas-powerplants or renewables.

    I don’t think low yields for infrastructure, but regulator’s pressure lead to sale of infrastructure. The yield may be low (e.g. 6%), but you can charge your cost and this means your yield is almost guaranteed. This was another disappropriation of shareholders together with nuclear exit and right way for renewables. What’s next?

    By the way my favourite of this stocks is RWE preferreds.

  • On top of all E.On already announced they would cut dividend this year.

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