Once upon a time, utility companies were the go-to investments among advisors who wanted something “safe and reliable” for widows and orphans. Utilities were regulated and generated a steady stream of dividend income, even if growth was unexciting. Then came deregulation and a difficult period of adjustment. Now, well-managed utilities can spark competitive returns as well as dividends.

“What we have now is a group of companies that have split into two different segments: one, the companies that are still primarily regulated and are focused on the distribution business, and [two], the companies that have a mix of regulated and non-regulated businesses and have a focus on deregulated generation. The deregulated generation companies today are performing very differently from the more traditional utilities,” says Judith Saryan, portfolio manager of the $911 million Eaton Vance Utilities Fund (EVTMX). Saryan has been following the utilities sector “on and off for over 25 years,” so she’s had the chance to closely watch the group evolve. That experience has helped Saryan produce returns that have consistently outperformed the utility group’s average, generating a five-star rating from Morningstar and a four-star ranking from Standard & Poor’s.

According to S&P, the fund returned an annualized 6.08% for the five years ended September 30 versus an annual (-0.36%) for the S&P Utilities Sector Index–and a negative (-1.49%) annually for the S&P 500. The performance trend seems to be strengthening, with the fund earning 29.45% annually for three years, versus 26.71% for the S&P Utilities Sector Index; and a one-year total return of 40.42% versus 38.67% for the utilities index, according to S&P.

How have utilities stocks changed from when my grandparents might have owned them? Utility stocks have changed quite a bit in the last 25 years. The main difference is that several years ago the companies were primarily regulated and that included telephone companies as well as electrics, but they were all regulated so the returns were fairly consistent, and growth rates were very low. Returns were quite consistent across the utility universe. That changed dramatically about seven years ago when the electric utility industry became deregulated.

What’s your investment process for the fund? At Eaton Vance we’re fundamentally driven in our stock selection. We analyze our industries very closely, and then we drill down to the individual companies and analyze each company to see what are the main fundamental drivers of that company. We look for companies that have strong management teams and business franchises that can grow their cash-flow generation and their dividend at an above-average rate. These are the primary characteristics. Then we look for companies that are selling at discount valuations relative to the utilities group.

So there’s a value edge to it? There’s definitely a value edge. We look at relative value versus the group, versus the overall industries, and the S&P 500. We are internationally focused so we compare the relative valuation versus comparable companies overseas. We are diversified across all the utility subsectors, including electrics, telephone, water utilities, gas utilities, and we’re diversified geographically. We think that by doing this we can reduce risk and that’s proven to be the case. We have had very strong performance, and when you look at our risk characteristics–beta, standard deviation of return, and most other types of risk ratings–we always rank very well on the low side of the risk spectrum. So strong returns and low risk–that’s what we’re trying to achieve. I think the diversification has really helped in that regard. We have a strong sell discipline, [with] a lot of the same approaches to our sell discipline as to our buy discipline. It’s very fundamentally oriented: If a company’s fundamentals change, we’ll quickly get out of the name, go to the sidelines, and re-analyze the situation.

Will you talk about your largest holdings? If you look at the last quarter, we’ve had very strong performance in some of these names. TXU (TXU) and Exelon (EXC), are two that come to mind; a third very large holding is Edison International (EIX). All of these companies have benefited from higher commodities prices. They all have deregulated generation. That’s what we look for because we would expect to see more growth coming out of these companies–more earnings growth, more cash-flow growth–and so far that’s been the case. The price of power is very much tied to the price of natural gas, and natural gas has been moving upward pretty dramatically. That has had a big impact on the performance of those stocks and performance of the fund. In the last few days [the interview took place Oct. 6], there has been a lot of volatility in the commodity markets; these stocks have also been very volatile on the downside. Natural gas prices had moved up so rapidly, the utility group had moved up very rapidly, and now the market is digesting that. We still believe there is going to be upward pressure on commodity prices. We’re not trying to forecast a specific commodity price but we think it’s going to be higher than most other energy analysts are predicting.

Would you talk about some of your winners? Exelon has been a winner–it’s the dominant nuclear power generator in the country, and is in the process of acquiring Public Service Enterprises (PEG), which also has nuclear power in its fleet. With nuclear power, Exelon is generating electricity at a very low cost. Some of its power is deregulated, so it’s able to earn higher returns on that part of the business, because the gas price has been setting the price for power. The returns are going up, margins are expanding, and cash-flow generation is tremendous. With that cash-flow generation, it’s been raising dividends. It’s exactly the kind of company we’re looking for: High quality, strong cash-flow generation, strong business franchise, and the ability to raise dividends at an above-average rate. Exelon made the decision to buy the nuclear power plants early on, when they were very low cost. When other companies that had decided to get out of the generation business were selling them at pennies on the dollar, Exelon was scooping up these assets and now it has a core competency in nuclear.

TXU has similar characteristics but went through much more of a downturn than Exelon. It got into trouble when it invested overseas. Its U.K. business was losing money and it had to take a big write-off. TXU had a retail business where it contracted for power at very high prices, and then the power market collapsed in the U.K. Prices went down, but it was contracted to pay [for power at] much higher prices, and it had to serve its customer base. TXU got out of that business, but that really put it into financial trouble on a short-term basis; the company had to cut its dividend and brought in new management. It’s started to generate a lot more free cash because once it cut the dividend it was able to accumulate cash, pay down some debt, and that put the company on much better footing. Management has done a superior job of working with regulators improving operations, and in addition, it’s got deregulated generation that’s benefiting from the higher commodity costs. TXU is still selling at a significant discount to the group’s multiple, so we think there’s more room for it to grow.

What about companies you’re not as happy with? The utilities definition includes telephone companies, which have not been faring very well because of all the competitive threats they’re facing. Verizon (VZ) has done an extremely good job in its wireless business, but its wireline business–the traditional fixed, plain old telephone service–has been suffering because customers no longer want second lines. They’re using their cell phones. The whole model is changing and the phone companies are changing with it, but it’s hard for them because that plain old telephone service paid a lot of bills. They compete with [each other] for wireless business; the cable companies on broadband; and they’re losing some of their traditional base.

Where would this fund fit in an investor’s portfolio? The utilities have changed a lot, but what I find so compelling about the industry group is that there are a lot of areas in which to invest. You can be very diversified but still stay within the utility group. Investors in utilities can find an investment choice that can produce above-average returns, over time, strong total returns, at below-average risk. Obviously you can’t promise that, but historically that’s what we’ve been able to produce. That’s very compelling, particularly as our baby boomer population gets closer to retirement. They are, I would say, looking for more conservative investments, investments where there is significant dividend income. Utility funds offer above-average dividends; below-average risk, at least historically; a very diversified group of stocks to invest in; and the ability to invest internationally because every country has utility stocks.

Does the Energy Policy Act of 2005 impact the fund? It’s had a positive impact on the fund. PUHCA, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, instituted back in the ’30s, has been repealed. That’s positive because the Act had prevented non-utility companies from investing in the industry. That will encourage more M&A activity in the group, and that’s positive for the performance of the group. It’s also positive in terms of efficiencies in the utility industry. We really have underinvested as a country in our transmission plant, [but] the energy legislation now provides many more incentives for investment in transmission and that’s a positive–for consumers as well as for the companies. Companies that invest in transmission will earn attractive rates of return. More connectivity should lead to lower prices. Say you can generate power at a cheaper cost in the Midwest than you can in the Northeast; it’s hard to get that power to the Northeast–the transmission lines are pretty much over capacity. Better transmission means that you will be able to bring cheaper power into areas of high-cost power, so that should be good.

Staff Editor Kate McBride can be reached at kmcbride@investmentadvisor.com.