NJR Adjusts to Meet Its Challenges and Opportunities

Under new CEO Steve Westhoven, the business portfolio of New Jersey Resources (NJR) has evolved as it typically does in response to changes in its operating environment.  Its regulated utility operations, New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) and its Midstream segment, are increasing their contribution to NJR’s total earnings through expanded investment.  NJNG is benefiting from continued infrastructure investment and modest customer growth.  The Midstream segment is growing through acquisitions, including the pending acquisitions of Leaf River Energy Center and the Adelphia Gateway.  Growth in the regulated operations is replacing expected declining profits from New Jersey Clean Energy Ventures, which is anticipating a decline in state and federal tax benefits for renewable energy projects.

The regulated operations have also provided more predictable earnings than NJR’s Energy Services (NJES) business, which provides wholesale natural gas and related asset management services to gas utilities, power producers and industrial companies.  NJES’s profits have been more volatile in recent years, due declining market fundamentals, including the growth in supply and associated downward price pressure on natural gas.

The recent emphasis on Midstream investments has been precipitated in part by an anticipated decline in the profitability in NVR’s Clean Energy Ventures (NJCEV) business.  Most of NJCEV’s significant contribution to NJR’s earnings in recent years has been driven by Federal and state tax benefits, including federal renewable energy investment tax credits and state Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs).  Those benefit programs are scheduled to wind down over the coming years and while they may quite possibly be renewed, they may not be as generous.  NJR exited the wind power business in fiscal 2018 probably in anticipation of the wind down of production tax credits.  Without these tax benefits, most renewable energy projects would generate unacceptably low returns.

The stepped-up investment in Midstream should also provide a boost to NJES.  With the acquisition of the Leaf River Energy Center in October and the anticipated acquisition of the Adelphia Gateway pipeline later this fiscal year, NJR will gain additional storage and pipeline capacity which can be contracted out to third parties or to NJES to support its trading activities.

With these tweaks of the portfolio, NJR has retained its long-term guidance of 6%-8% average annual growth in Net Financial Earnings.  (NFE is a non-GAAP measure that eliminates the earnings impact of unrealized gains and losses on derivatives and the economic effects of hedging NJR’s natural gas inventories (i.e. gas in storage)).  Together with the stock’s current dividend yield of 2.7%, management’s guidance anticipates an average annual return of roughly 9%-11% on NJR’s common shares, assuming no change in forward multiples.

Fiscal 2019 Results.  NJR delivered NFE of $175 million or $1.96 per share in fiscal 2019 (ended Sept. 30).  This was a sharp drop from $240.5 million or $2.74 per share of NFE in fiscal 2018.  The 2019 results were at the low end of management’s original guidance of $1.95-$2.05 per share given at the beginning of the year.

Although fiscal 2019 was within management’s guidance range, the percentage contribution from each segment varied in some cases significantly from management’s original guidance.  NJCEV’s (net financial) earnings were much stronger than originally anticipated.  At $0.87 per share, they exceeded the midpoint of management’s guidance by 45%.  Energy Services earnings, meanwhile, came in at $0.03 per share, well below guidance of $0.10 to $0.30.  The earnings of the regulated businesses came in within guidance, but NJNG’s earnings of $0.87 were slightly below the low end of the $0.88-$1.03 guidance range.

Management had anticipated a drop in earnings for both Clean Energy Ventures and Energy Services; but the decline in Energy Services was much worse than anticipated and that decline was more than made up by much stronger than anticipated results at Clean Energy Ventures.

Stock Price Performance.   NJR’s stock has moderately underperformed its peer group so far in 2019.  On a price basis, NJR is down 0.5% through December 21, while the Dow Jones U.S. Gas Utility Index is up 5.6%.  Since NJR’s dividend yield is roughly in line with its peer group, the 600-basis point spread in performance is also similar on a total return basis.

Most of NJR’s underperformance has occurred since early August after NJR reported a loss of $0.20 per share for the 19Q3 quarter, well below the consensus estimate of a $0.12 profit.   Most of the shortfall was due to weaker than anticipated results at Energy Services, whose earnings suffered due to a milder than anticipated summer and low natural gas price volatility.  In response, management said that NJR’s full year earnings would likely come in at the low end of its guidance range, which weighed heavily on the stock.

Other factors which have weighed on the stock in the second half of calendar 2019 include the dilution anticipated as a result of the additional equity needed to finance the acquisition of the Leaf River Energy Center and the recent adverse court and state regulatory rulings that have raised doubts about the viability of the Penn East pipeline.

Despite these headwinds, the stock has rebounded sharply over the past couple weeks, following the completion on Dec. 4 of a 5.7 million share offering, which expanded total shares outstanding by 6.3% to about 95.7 million.  The Dow Jones Natural Gas Utility Index has also rallied over this time period; but not as much as NJR.

The Recent Share Offering.  That 5.7 million secondary share offering will net NJR $228 million of proceeds at the public offering price of $41.25 per share after underwriting discounts and expenses of $1.2375 per share.  It is still subject to an underwriters’ overallotment of 845,454 shares which could bring in another $33.8 million of net proceeds to the company.  Included in the 5.7 million shares are 366,666 shares that have been issued to the underwriter in forward sale agreements that may not be settled until Sept. 30, 2020 and could be settled on a net basis (i.e. the difference between the market price at settlement and the net offering price of $40.0125) at NJR’s option.

Proceeds will be used for permanent financing for the acquisition of Leaf River Energy Center, which was acquired on Oct. 11 for $367.5 million.  Assuming the exercise of the overallotment option and settlement of the forward sale agreement at the full net offering price, the total equity issued would represent 71.5% of the purchase price, much higher than NJR’s current equity-to-total capitalization ratio of 49.5%.  Management has suggested that part of this excess equity capital will be used to support its anticipated acquisition of and investment in Adelphia Gateway.

Anticipated Fiscal 2020 Performance.  NJR has established NFE guidance of $2.05-$2.15 per share, up 4.6%-9.7% for fiscal 2020, which encompasses its long-term annual NFE per share growth target of 6%-8%.  Regulated operations are expected to contribute 65%-75% of total consolidated NFE, up from 53% in fiscal 2019, with unregulated operations accounting for the remainder, 26%-42%, down from 47% in fiscal 2019.

NJNG is expected to contribute 55%-60% of fiscal 2020 total NFE.  At the midpoint of the range, this guidance translates into an NFE contribution of $114.3 million or $1.19 per share, up 46.3% and 35.2% respectively from $78.1 million and $0.88 per share in fiscal 2019.

On Nov. 13, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) approved a rate settlement that granted NJNG a rate increase of $62.2 million effective Nov. 15.  NJR estimates that the settlement amount will result in an annualized NFE increase of $36.7 million, which equates to $0.38 per share.  Since the new rates will be in effect for roughly 10.5 months of the fiscal year, NJNG should realize an increase of about $32 million or $0.34 per share from the rate increase in fiscal 2020.  Consequently, substantially all of the increase in the implied guidance for NJNG is due to the rate settlement.

Although the company has allowed room at the high end of NJNG’s guidance range to deliver more than just the rate increase, the guidance either reflects potential undisclosed offsets, such as cost increases, or it is conservative, especially since NJNG will benefit from continued customer growth and/or the likely implementation of one or more additional rate increases during the course of the year to cover its infrastructure upgrade projects, including NJ RISE, SAFE and its Infrastructure Investment Program.

NJCEV.  NJR’s guidance anticipates that NJCEV’s share of consolidated NFE will decline from 44.3% in fiscal 2019 to between 20% and 25% in fiscal 2020.  As noted above, the company made a similar prediction going into fiscal 2019, but NJCEV delivered substantially higher than anticipated earnings that year.

There are differences this year.  Besides having already sold all of its wind assets and completed sale-leasebacks on some of its solar projects (which presumably reduce NJCEV’s profitability by the lease costs), NJCEV sold half of its SREC inventory during the course of fiscal 2019.

The combination of SRECs generated combined with the drawdown in inventories helped NJCEV achieve record SREC sales in fiscal 2019.  However, with the lower SREC inventories at the start of fiscal 2020 and the typical growth in SRECs generated each year, my estimates suggest that it will be hard to sell as many SRECs in fiscal 2020; so revenues are likely to come down. 

The increase in revenues generated from SRECs was a big factor in NJCEV’s ability to achieve better than anticipated results in fiscal 2019.  My estimates suggest that it will be more difficult to accomplish a similar result in fiscal 2020.  Consequently, NJCEV’s net financial earnings are likely to decline in fiscal 2020; but this is already baked into the company’s guidance.  My analysis suggests that it will be much harder for NJCEV to deliver an upside surprise in fiscal 2020 as it did in fiscal 2019.

Energy Services (NJES) remains a big question mark for fiscal 2020.  In fiscal 2019, as noted above, its earnings fell significantly below fiscal 2018 and also below management’s original guidance.  Declining natural gas prices, tepid demand and low price volatility were factors in its weak performance.  Current forecasts by the U.S. Energy Information Administration anticipate that natural gas production will continue to exceed consumption in 2020, which suggests little or no improvement near-term in natural gas prices. 

Yet, Energy Services’ profitability does not depend solely upon favorable natural gas price trends.  It also depends on its ability to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities in the commodity, storage and transportation capacity across geographies and time periods for its customers (including NJNG) and for its own account.  Although the Leaf River Energy Center and Adelphia Gateway will be Midstream assets, they increase NJR’s long exposure to storage and pipeline transportation capacity which Energy Services can trade around to build its book of business.

NJR anticipates that Energy Services will deliver between 5% and 15% of its total NFE in fiscal 2020. which I believe is consistent with its long-term contribution percentage expectations for the business.   Given the inherent difficulty of forecasting wholesale trading operations as well as the limited disclosures that NJR gives on NJES’s operations, it is difficult to project its revenues and NFE with any acceptable degree of confidence.

NJR says that Energy Services tends to make more money when prices are volatile, which may be true as a general observation; but the business reported strong results in fiscal 2017 even with relatively low volatility in natural gas prices.  NJES’s earnings have been quite volatile over the past few years, as shown in the chart below.

Weakness in Energy Services’ profitability took a bite out of NJR’s share price in August, so the market is paying attention; but it is difficult to predict where its NFE will land in fiscal 2020.  As a result, we are more or less forced to rely on management’s guidance; but given the recent track record, I am assuming for now that NJES’s profitability will track toward the low end of the guidance range.

NJR’s Midstream business will expand significantly with the acquisitions of the Leaf River Energy Center, a 32.2 million dekatherm salt dome storage facility located in Southeastern Mississippi, and the Adelphia Gateway, an 84-mile pipeline located in southeastern Pennsylvania.  Through the end of fiscal 2019, Midstream’s assets included a 50% stake in Steckman Ridge, a 12 Bcf natural gas storage facility located in Bedford County PA, and a 20% stake in the PennEast Pipeline Company, which is seeking to build a 120-mile, FERC regulated pipeline that will bring natural gas from the Marcellus across Pennsylvania and into New Jersey.

NJR has disclosed no historical performance data on Leaf River nor has it given a forecast of its revenues and earnings.  It has said, however, that it expects that the acquisition will be nominally accretive to NFE in fiscal 2020 and supportive of NJR’s long-term NFE growth target of 6%-8%.

NJR agreed to purchase the Adelphia Gateway from Talen Energy Corporation in October 2017 for $166 million plus contingent consideration of $23 million.  It intends to convert the southern 50-mile stretch of the 84-mile pipeline from oil to natural gas to provide customers in southeastern Pennsylvania with an additional supply source at a capacity of 250,000 dekatherms per day.  The acquisition received a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Dec. 20.  NJR now awaits final approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.  The acquisition is expected to be completed in the current fiscal year (2020).   NJR incurred $20 million of capital expenditures on the Adelphia Gateway in fiscal 2019 and plans to spend another $116 million, excluding the cost of the acquisition, in fiscal 2020.

From the outset, the PennEast Pipeline project has faced opposition in New Jersey from environmentalists and those whose property rights will be affected by its construction.  Those issues were considered by FERC when it granted a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the project in January 2018.  Nevertheless, in September 2019, an appeals court overturned a previous ruling that had granted the project condemnation rights and immediate access to certain properties in New Jersey. In November, PennEast said that it would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision.  If it accepts the case, the Supreme Court may determine whether Federal regulatory policy trumps local environmental and other interests.

In October, the New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) declared PennEast’s freshwater wetlands permit application to be administratively incomplete.  PennEast has filed an objection to NJDEP’s declaration.  Even if PennEast receives a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, it may face a further delay in order to address NJDEP’s declaration.

At the end of fiscal 2019, NJR’s investment in PennEast totaled $85.8 million.  If the project is scrapped, NJR will probably have to write-off this investment.  Over the past three years, NJR has recorded average annual earnings of $5.2 million from the project, including $6.4 million in fiscal 2019, mostly for its share of AFUDC (allowance for funds used during construction).  Capital expenditures devoted to the project by NJR were $4 million in fiscal 2019, with $6 million planned for 2020.  Should the project get the green light, NJR will likely incur significantly greater capital expenditures.  NJR and its partners in the project (UGI, South Jersey Industries, Southern Company and Spectra Energy) remain confident that the project will be approved.

NJR’s guidance anticipates that the Midstream business will contribute 5%-15% of its total consolidated NFE in fiscal 2020.  At the midpoint of the guidance, Midstream would contribute $25.3 million or $0.26 per share.  Except for fiscal 2018, when the segment benefited from a revaluation of deferred income taxes as a result of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, Midstream’s NFE has averaged about $13 million per year.  As noted, Leaf River will be nominally accretive in fiscal 2020.  That leaves the Adelphia Gateway or some other earnings contributor as the source of the expected increase in fiscal 2020.

Valuation.  On a forward (non-GAAP) earnings basis, NJR trades at a discount to its peer group average.  (Peer group includes ATO, CPK, NI, NJR, NWN, OGS, SJI, SR, SWX and UGI).  By my calculations, the stock is valued at 21 times projected 2020 consensus earnings of $2.15 per share (vs. the peer group average forward multiple of 24) and 19 times projected 2021 consensus earnings of $2.50 per share (vs. the peer group average forward multiple of 22).  Average multiples for the gas utilities are currently at the high end of their historic ranges.

The valuation discount vs. peers, which widened a bit as a result of NJR’s underperformance in the 2019 second half, may reflect uncertainty about the potential earnings contributions of Energy Services and Midstream as well as the expected decline in NJCEV’s earnings.  My analysis suggests that the company’s fiscal 2020 guidance for Energy Services, Midstream and possibly NJCEV looks aggressive compared with recent historical results and management has so far not offered sufficient support for the fiscal 2020 guidance ranges for those businesses. On the other hand, the guidance for NJNG looks somewhat conservative, so perhaps strength at NJNG may offset some of the potential weakness in the other businesses.

On balance, however, it appears that many market participants may be questioning NJR’s ability to meet its fiscal 2020 guidance in light of the weaker-than-expected fiscal 2019 second half results. In order to reduce or eliminate this valuation discount, NJR must therefore resolve much of this uncertainty over time, if possible, to give the market greater confidence in its ability to meet its fiscal 2020 guidance and maintain at least for the next few years its NFE growth targets

From my perspective, the performance of NJCEV and Midstream should be easier to forecast, while the performance of Energy Services is subject to greater volatility based upon commodity price trends and the steps that the company takes to mitigate (or embrace) risk. For the most part, I am willing to give management the benefit of the doubt on NJCEV and Midstream in the short-term and my forecast anticipates that Energy Services earnings will come in at the low end of the guidance range, which would still be a significant improvement over fiscal 2019, but well below the historical average earnings of the business.

Thus, barring any major negative surprises, I think that NJR can deliver on its fiscal 2020 guidance, achieving NFE within its target 6%-8% range. Combined with its current 2.7% dividend yield, this would result in an annualized total return of about 9%-11% on the stock, assuming that the forward multiple remains steady.

On the other hand, closing the valuation gap (i.e. raising its forward earning multiple to the peer group average) most likely will depend upon the company’s ability to convince the market that the 6%-8% NFE growth target is sustainable beyond fiscal 2020. If so, this could add as much as 10 percentage points to NJR’s total return (or relative return vs. peers).

Originally published on December 22, 2019. Revised on December 25, 2019 to correct certain errors and provide a more detailed analysis of the stock’s potential returns.

Stephen P. Percoco
Lark Research
839 Dewitt Street
Linden, New Jersey 07036
(908) 975-0250

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