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Investors are bullish in the industry now that private firms are securing control of supplies

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK
Sunday, Oct 30, 2005

Oil and gold have had a great run in the markets this year.

So, too, has water.

While most of what flows through the nation's water taps is supplied by publicly run municipal systems, a growing number of rural and suburban water systems are owned by a handful of publicly traded utilities, like Aqua America. The shares of these companies have skyrocketed this year, and despite a sell-off earlier this month, they are still at levels that might seem more appropriate for rarer commodities, like precious metals or petroleum.

The prices have surprised some analysts because water utilities, after all, inhabit a pokey, highly regulated universe whose infrastructure is likely to require an expensive upgrade. But investors who are bullish on the industry say that it is about to undergo a historic change -- moving oceans of municipal water into the hands of for-profit companies.

New regulations

The catalyst for the transformation will be the final draft of new water quality regulations, which the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue later this year, said Michael Gaugler, a stock analyst at Boenning & Scattergood, a brokerage firm in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.

The new rules will require water systems to further reduce levels of substances like arsenic and chlorine. Many small towns will discover that they cannot afford the pricey ultraviolet reactors they will need to meet these stricter limits, Gaugler said. But he added that the new requirements were not the only consideration.

"Some of this infrastructure has been around since World War II, and the pumps and pipes are wearing out," Gaugler said. "But reality has not hit at the local level yet."

About 85 percent of the nation's nearly 55,000 municipal water systems serve fewer than 3,300 homes each, and Gaugler said that many small towns had too few customers to be able to afford the infrastructure improvements. But, he said, companies like Aqua America -- which is based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and has 2.5 million customers in 15 states -- could cover the costs without sharply raising rates. While large cities have continued to operate their own water systems, publicly traded water utilities tend to buy small rural and suburban water systems.

Gaugler predicted that more small towns would begin selling their water systems to the for-profit companies next year and in 2007, and that the pace might pick up as the deadlines for compliance -- which range from 2011 to 2013 -- drew near. He predicted that the big water companies "will pay less for acquisitions as time goes on, because municipalities are going to get desperate to sell."

Only a handful of water utilities trade on stock exchanges -- and many of the companies are tiny, with market capitalizations of only a few hundred million dollars. This means that sudden changes in investor sentiment can cause big moves in the stocks.

Aqua America, the only publicly traded water company with a market capitalization of more than US$1 billion, started trading this year at less than US$25. The stock peaked at around US$39 on Oct. 4. Then, on Oct. 12, more than four times the usual number of shares traded hands, and the stock fell to US$32. It now trades at US$32.92. Trading in the California Water Service Group, the second-largest water utility stock, and American States Water, the third largest, has followed similar patterns.

Investments

Such volatility is attributable in part to hedge funds and other pools of private money that have focused on water-related investments, said Ivan Feinseth, director of research at Matrix USA, a research and brokerage firm in New York.

"It's not as crazy as it was when all the Internet funds were launched," he said. "But if you want an allocation to water, there are only so many stocks you can buy."

Dividends were once a bigger incentive for investors in water utilities, said James Lykins, a stock analyst at Hilliard Lyons, a brokerage firm in Louisville, Kentucky. But he said he no longer found the yield attractive after the sharp rise in share prices.

Both the California Water Service Group, based in San Jose, and American States Water, based in San Dimas, California, now yield a little better than 3 percent. Aqua America yields 1.8 percent, the average yield for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index.

Both Gaugler and Lykins stopped recommending new purchases of Aqua America in early August, a week after the stock first hit US$32. Lykins said he thought that the stock would be more attractive in the high US$20's. Gaugler declined to say what he thought would be a fair price, but he did say he found it expensive at US$32, which gave it a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of around 35. In most years, he said, the stock has had a P/E ratio of 20 to 30.

In the past, some analysts argued that Aqua America had an advantage over West Coast companies, because the regulatory environment was more favorable in its core market of Pennsylvania than it was in California.

But Lykins said he expected the California Public Utilities Commission to make faster decisions and to grant bigger rate increases after two recent appointments by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

So Lykins is recommending that long-term investors consider buying shares of the California Water Service Group, which serves more than two million people in California, Washington, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Last month, the California Water Service Group announced that it had put its chief financial officer, Richard Nye, on administrative leave, pending an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into his work with a former employer, CornerStone Propane Partners LP, based in Watsonville, California.

On Sept. 23, the SEC filed civil charges against Nye and four other former CornerStone executives, accusing them of reporting false financial results in SEC filings and press releases from June 2000 through September 2001. Because the investigation relates to Nye's work with another company -- and not with the California Water Service Group -- Lykins said he thought the impact on the stock would be "minimal, if any."

Growing demand

There is money to be made from the growing demand for clean water -- but the best opportunities are not in the water utilities, said Neil Berlant, a consultant to the water industry, who also runs a private water investment portfolio at the Seidler Cos., an investment firm in Los Angeles. He said the biggest opportunities would come from selling water filtration systems to industry.

Home water use accounts for only about 1 percent of water consumption in the US, he said.

The vast majority is used by industry and agriculture, with most of the rest used for commercial purposes or parks.

Many industries already filter water for production, Berlant said, and some will need even purer water in coming years. For example, he said that manufacturing a new wave of semiconductors would require water that is 15 times purer than what was needed just a few years ago.

He likes two companies that are now primarily manufacturers of water treatment systems -- Pentair, Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Watts Water Technologies, in North Andover, Massachusetts. Both companies' stocks have fallen somewhat this year. Pentair trades at US$31.33 and is off 28 percent for the year, and Watts is at US$31.82, down 16 percent.

Berlant, who said that he consulted for both companies in the past but does not do so now, and holds both stocks in the separate accounts that he manages for institutional and wealthy individual investors.

Feinseth also said that stocks like Pentair and Watts Water Technologies were more promising than the publicly traded water utilities. In his view, revenue of the water utilities will be constrained by state regulators who will keep a lid on rate increases.

To add to revenue, he said, the water utilities will have to continue making acquisitions. But ultimately, he said, it is unlikely that such water holdings will prove very profitable.

"There has not been a huge growth in water consumption," Feinseth said. "But there's a doomsday scenario. Some people say that clean water will become a more valuable commodity than oil. Personally, I don't see how that happens."