This month I want to pay my respects to the panicked, concerned and worried out there (myself included) and feature a dividend growth stock — and even better, it’s a dividend growth stock in the super-boring utility sector. This is the kind of stock you might find comfort in if the market treads water for a year or more, as many suspect.
Still awake? Good — because this stock does have an underlying business of providing natural gas to residential and business customers, but there’s also a little taste of excitement underneath in the form of some potentially very valuable acreage in the Marcellus Shale. Not exactly a “hidden” asset, but quite possibly an underappreciated one.
So if that’s not enough of a clue for you, the stock is National Fuel Gas (NFG), which is an integrated energy company that includes three main segments: a regulated utility, a pipeline and transport company (including subsidiary Empire Pipeline), and an oil and gas exploration and production company (Seneca Resources). They also have an energy marketing business, some landfill generation assets, and about 100,000 acres of timber land that they mange (and some sawmills), but even taken all together that’s a tiny slice of the pie.
The big picture scenario is that the utility, the existing pipelines, and their established oil and gas production (mostly in California) supply the relatively steady cash flow, which they’re investing in expanding their pipeline business serving the Marcellus Shale and, more importantly, their gas production from that huge shale play.
So although what we have looks on the surface like a steady eddie utility, with a dividend that has risen every year for almost 40 years and a decently competitive payout of nearly 3% at the current share price, in reality the stock, though it gets a floor because of the utility, is primarily a play on the growth of the Marcellus Shale as a growing natural gas production area, and on natural gas in general. If natural gas falls back to near $2, NFG may do reasonably well compared to some gas explorers and producers, but it will take a substantial hit — if gas gets back to $10 then they should be rolling in more cash than they know what to do with. And likewise, if accidents or environmental concerns take a big bite out of Marcellus drilling and production, NFG ...