In preparation for entering its close period on 1 October, SSE released a statement about its financial prospects for the first half of its 2017/18 financial year. In truth, there was no major news. However, the company did reaffirm that its adjusted operating profit from its various energy network businesses would fall by around £150 million this year following the part disposal of its stake in SGN, a leading gas distribution business.
This figure was no surprise since SSE had warned the market of the expected shortfall previously.
On the wholesale and retail front, the news was mildly positive, with a slightly better performance expected in the Energy Portfolio Management (EPM) and generation business.
Much investor focus will be on earnings per share (EPS), now expected to be between 30p and 32p for the first half of 2017/18, compared with 34p previously. The dividend is expected to rise by at least RPI-based inflation, although dividend cover does remain low at around 1.3x.
Previously, SSE had updated the market when it released details of its Q1 results back in July, which also coincided with its AGM in Perth. Relatively little seems to have changed in the intervening period, although weather patterns during the coming winter months will be crucial for SSE’s full-year 2017/18 outturn.
In July, SSE confirmed that it anticipated investment of around £1.7 billion for 2017/18, much of which will be spent on its extensive networks operations. In this statement, too, there were carefully crafted commitments on both future dividend payments and dividend cover levels – both are very price sensitive issues for SSE and were reiterated in the pre-close period statement.
Attractions to investors
SSE holds many attractions for discerning investors. In part, this is due to its wide range of UK and Ireland-based utility assets. In particular, SSE’s returns from its network operations are highly prized by investors, although this year’s figures will be substantially reduced by the part disposal of the SGN gas business.
On the generation front, SSE owns portfolios of both thermal and renewable plant. In the latter case, it was very much in the vanguard in espousing renewable generation, a sub-sector that is now rated more highly by investors.
And, of course, SSE’s mightily impressive dividend payment profile – with payments up from 25.7p in 1998/99 to 91.3p in 2016/17 – has unquestionably boosted its standing with investors. Inevitably, any major developments on the dividend will impact its share price, which has barely changed over a five-year period – it is now close to £14.
It did fluctuate quite markedly, though, in the period covered by the independent referendum in Scotland. Nonetheless, compared with some of the biggest names in EU energy, such as EDF, whose shares have plunged in recent years, SSE’s shares have been very resilient.
As an undoubted pioneer in offshore wind investment, SSE will be very pleased that this technology seems to have come of age – and that its strong advocacy of the benefits of offshore wind generation have been roundly vindicated.
The recent offshore wind auction, which saw prices as low as £57.50 per megawatt-hour for a 15-year contract for difference, (CfD) underpins SSE’s confidence in the technology and its place in the generation mainstream. For the cost base to have fallen so quickly is remarkable, albeit some special factors do exaggerate the extent of the cost efficiencies that operators have found.
Of course, such low prices adversely impact operators’ projected margins but, given such competitive prices, far more offshore windfarms will assuredly be built – SSE will play a key role in this investment.
In fact, SSE has already participated in several well-known offshore wind projects in recent years, such as Dogger Bank. And, for the next two years, delivering the 588MW Beatrice offshore windfarm off Caithness will be a high priority. SSE is the largest shareholder in this challenging project.
Response to Helm
Given its exposure to renewable generation – and, as such, a major beneficiary of CfD-backed subsidies – SSE chief executive Alistair Phillips-Davies has expressed concerns about the conclusions that may emanate from the energy cost review being undertaken by professor Dieter Helm, a leading energy academic.
Helm’s robust views on renewable generation costs are well known and Phillips-Davies is anxious that this issue will not dominate his eventual report. Nonetheless, the SSE chief executive has emphasised his hope that Helm’s focus will be on ensuring that continuing investment in energy infrastructure takes place.
He also points out the need for the ongoing transformation to a low-carbon economy to continue. To what extent, Helm’s report subsequently triggers any significant government action remains to be seen – past experience suggests it is unlikely to do so. Nonetheless, his price comparison analysis of varying generation sources will be rigorously studied by the major players, including SSE.