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posted on 13 July 2016

Post-Brexit Invasion: Foreign Utes Come Shopping

by Richard Stavros

Investing Daily Article of the Week

One of the country's top utility investment bankers predicts increased cross-border merger activity as European and Canadian firms seek safety in the U.S.

Of course, the strengthening dollar could also cause capital to flow in the opposite direction. In the wake of the U.K.'s vote to exit the European Union, there is also speculation that, with the dollar rising against the pound and euro, some U.S. utilities may be looking to acquire foreign utilities on the cheap.

In fact, the strong dollar has already boosted U.S. cross-border merger-and-acquisition activity to its highest level in two decades, according to Bloomberg.

The news service noted:

"With the greenback averaging its strongest level for a year since 2002, American companies have announced almost 3,100 deals in 2015, the fastest clip since at least 1996."

As such, investors should be on the lookout for more M&A that could make for better valuations on greater earnings and growth, dividend strength, and possible eye-popping premiums for core Utility Forecaster holdings.

To be sure, we've already seen the beginning of this trend of foreign acquisitions of U.S. utilities with the purchase of UIL Holdings by Spain-based Iberdrola (OTC: IBDRY) to form Avangrid (NYSE: AGR), and Canadian utility giant Fortis' (TSX: FTS, OTC: FRTSF) bid for ITC Holdings (NYSE: ITC), to name just a couple.

Even so, investors might be forgiven for being skeptical of an investment banker who predicts more mergers, as it's in their interest to do so.

But Jeffrey Holzschuh, chairman of institutional securities at Morgan Stanley, who spoke at the recent Deloitte conference that I attended, has had a formative role in shaping the U.S. utilities sector. Indeed, over the past 20 years, I've seen his name repeatedly associated with some of the biggest deals in the industry.

So when I heard he'd be speaking in D.C., I knew Utility Forecaster had to be there. And he did not disappoint.

Holzschuh explained that many of these international firms are not only looking to diversify their holdings, but in some cases may be looking to domicile in the U.S., which would make it easier to get listed on U.S. exchanges and market their securities to U.S. investors.

Without disclosing which companies or where, he predicted that there will be five or six reasonably big deals in the near future, as well as further spin-offs or carve-outs, where those with higher risk tolerances can invest in specific assets.

The veteran banker also believes that most of the deals announced over the past few months will be completed or approved by regulators, though the proposed acquisition of Hawaiian Electric (NYSE: HE) by NextEra Energy (NYSE: NEE) does look increasingly uncertain given the pushback from regulators.

Holzschuh, who has been a banker for more than 30 years, remembers that he used to follow 275 companies, but given industry consolidation over the decades, that number has fallen to just 55.

This statistic underscores that M&A opportunities are becoming scarcer by the day. Even if the sector hits peak consolidation, the next era of dealmaking could see sprawling utility empires rationalized via spin-offs, IPOs of subsidiaries, or carve-outs.

But for right now, all eyes are on international utilities.

Holzschuh said:

"We are going to continue to see European and Canadian utilities who continue to perceive growth in the U.S. versus Canada and Europe."

That means we could be dealing with more happy dilemmas, where the joy of a takeover at a premium is balanced by the need to find another dependable dividend payer at the right price.

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