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Edited Transcript of NJR earnings conference call or presentation 19-Nov-19 3:00pm GMT

Q4 2019 New Jersey Resources Corp Earnings Call

Wall Nov 20, 2019 (Thomson StreetEvents) -- Edited Transcript of New Jersey Resources Corp earnings conference call or presentation Tuesday, November 19, 2019 at 3:00:00pm GMT

TEXT version of Transcript

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Corporate Participants

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* Dennis R. Puma

New Jersey Natural Gas Company - Director, IR

* Patrick J. Migliaccio

New Jersey Resources Corporation - Senior VP & CFO

* Stephen D. Westhoven

New Jersey Resources Corporation - President, CEO & Director

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Conference Call Participants

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* Shahriar Pourreza

Guggenheim Securities, LLC, Research Division - MD and Head of North American Power

* Travis Miller

Morningstar Inc., Research Division - Director of Utilities Research and Strategist

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Presentation

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Operator [1]

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Good day, and welcome to the New Jersey Resources Year-end Fiscal 2019 Earnings Conference Call. (Operator Instructions) Please note this event is being recorded.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Dennis Puma, Director of Investor Relations. Please go ahead.

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Dennis R. Puma, New Jersey Natural Gas Company - Director, IR [2]

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Thank you, Sharon, and good morning, everyone. Welcome to New Jersey Resources Year-end Fiscal 2019 Conference Call and Webcast. I'm joined here today by Steve Westhoven, our President and CEO; Pat Migliaccio, our Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer; as well as other members of our senior management team.

As you know, certain statements in today's call contain estimates and other forward-looking statements within the meaning of the securities laws. We wish to caution listeners of this call that the current expectations, assumptions and beliefs forming the basis for our forward-looking statements include many factors that are beyond our ability to control or estimate precisely. This could cause results to materially differ from our expectations, as found in Slide 1.

These items can be found in the forward-looking statements section of today's earnings release furnished on Form 8-K and in our most recent Forms 10-K and Q as filed with the SEC. We do not, by including this statement, assume any obligation to review or revise any particular forward-looking statement referenced herein in light of future events.

We will also be referring to certain non-GAAP measures such as net financial earnings or NFE. We believe that NFE provides a more complete understanding of our financial performance. However, NFE is not intended to be a substitute for GAAP. Our non-GAAP financial measures are discussed more fully in Item 7 of our 10-K.

Turning to Slide 2, our agenda can be found. Steve will begin today's call with the highlights from the year and outlook for fiscal 2020, followed by Pat with a review of our financial results. We'll then open the call up to your questions. I'd also like to point out that there are slides accompanying today's presentation, which are available on our website and were also furnished on Form 8-K filed this morning.

With that said, I'd like to turn the call over to our CEO, Steve Westhoven. Steve?

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Stephen D. Westhoven, New Jersey Resources Corporation - President, CEO & Director [3]

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Thanks, Dennis, and good morning, everyone. I'd like to begin on Slide 4. We reported net financial earnings of $1.96 per share for fiscal 2019 compared to $2.74 per share for the prior year. There are 2 main reasons for the difference: first, the onetime positive effects of tax reform in 2018; and second, the contrast between Energy Services performance in 2019 compared to its outstanding performance in 2018. If we compare our 2019 results against those from 2016, our NFE increased at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.8%, meeting our 6.28% long-term expected growth rate. Highlighting our commitment to shareholders, we increased our dividend for the 24th consecutive year.

Turning to Slide 5, I'll walk you through the accomplishments from New Jersey Natural Gas. First, we reached settlement with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities on our rate case with a $62.2 million increase to rates that went into effect on November 15. We appreciate the productive relationship we have with our regulators and the continued commitment to investing in our energy infrastructure. Second, we met our annual customer growth target of 1.8% in fiscal 2019. The current demographics and fuel pricing dynamics in our service territory will continue to drive new residential construction and conversions.

Third, the Southern Reliability Link received its last remaining permits for the final phase of construction. We currently expect an in-service date of 2021. Recovery for SRL will come in a future rate case proceeding. We also replaced 72 miles of bare steel main through SAFE and continued the hardening and reinforcement of our system through NJ RISE. And finally, during 2019, we filed with the BPU for our new Infrastructure Investment Program. We expect to conclude the regulatory process during 2020.

On Slide 6, I'll update you on several New Jersey Natural Gas's growth drivers. Our utility earnings growth is primarily driven by its ability to expand its rate base and customers. As you can see in the upper left, we expect continued customer growth, driven by new construction and conversions. On the top right, we expect rate base growth to exceed 10% per year through 2022, given our future capital investments.

On the bottom left, you see the breakdown of our capital projects. In 2019, our capital investment increased by more than 40%, mostly driven by SRL. In 2020, we expect our capital spending to increase 28% as we upgrade our system, construct SRL and invest in necessary technology improvements. And finally, as shown in the bottom right, 35% of our capital -- our expected capital spend in 2020 will earn near immediate returns through customer growth and annual recovery mechanisms.

Moving to Slide 7, I'd like to highlight our environmental record. We have the lowest number of leaks per mile of any natural gas utility in New Jersey. And in fact, we've reduced methane emissions by more than 900 metric tons since 2015. In 2019, we were the first company in New Jersey to join ONE Future, an organization dedicated to voluntarily achieving meaningful reductions in methane emissions. We were also the first utility in the country to purchase a portion of our natural gas supply through the TrustWell Responsible Program, which evaluates and verifies responsibly sourced natural gas for customers. We remain committed to meeting our customers' expectations for safety and reliability in an environmentally responsible way. This will always be a top priority for our company.

Moving to Slide 8, the strategy for NJR Midstream is to invest in pipeline and storage facilities that benefit from our extensive experience in the natural gas marketplace. With long-term objectives generated stable earnings and cash flows, we target investments in natural gas storage and in transportation that serve constrained or growing markets.

Let me walk you through the highlights. First, we acquired the Leaf River Energy Center. I'll provide more details on the next slide. But we're excited about the opportunities it holds for NJR. Second, in 2019, Steckman Ridge, our storage asset in Marcellus Shale, contributed $0.09 per share of NFE.

Moving to our pipeline assets. Although PennEast has experienced some recent challenges, we remain committed to the project, and it's an important role in our energy future. PennEast is currently pursuing its appellate rights and continues to evaluate development options to proceed with construction. In 2019, PennEast contributed $0.04 of NFE per share in AFUDC, and we expect a similar minimal contribution in 2020. For Adelphia Gateway, we're still awaiting FERC Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. Once we received approval, we expect to assume operations immediately and begin the conversion of the southern end of the pipeline.

Moving to Slide 9, our acquisition of Leaf River is significant for several reasons. First, since 1995, our Energy Services business unit has cultivated strong customer relationships and effectively managed the portfolio of natural gas storage assets across the U.S., including regions served by Leaf River. This experience and our relationships will help drive future opportunities for this investment. Second, Leaf River, which is connected to 6 interstate pipelines, is located near the Gulf Coast, the fastest-growing market for natural gas in the United States.

Forces driving this demand include the expansion of industrial activity in the region, the growth of LNG exports and an increase in natural gas-fired generation. Over 80% of Leaf River's revenues is contracted with creditworthy counterparties with an average contract life of approximately 5 years, and Leaf River has the potential for expansion. Its 3 storage cabins are amongst the newest in North America, and the facility was designed to accommodate a possible fourth cabin.

Turning to Slide 10 for an update on Clean Energy Ventures. At the top of the slide, you'll note that we placed 7 commercial solar projects into service in 2019 adding about 52 megawatts. In 2020, capital expenditures will range from $130 million to $140 million, adding between 47 and 52 megawatts of capacity and generating $38 million to $42 million in ITCs. Finally, at the bottom right, you can see that the solar portfolio is expected to generate between $79 million and $81 million in SREC revenues in 2020.

On Slide 11 are the results for Energy Services. Over the past 2 years, we've experienced a broad range of performance. In 2018, we saw what can happen when weather conditions, pricing spreads and volatility are working in our favor. To contrast that, in 2019, we experienced milder weather, narrower pricing spreads and decreased volatility. Despite these factors, Energy Services continues to generate positive NFE, which supports our long option strategy. Given our past history, we expect Energy Services results to be within 5% to 15% NFE guidance range.

Moving to Slide 12. This morning, we announced fiscal 2020 NFE per share guidance of $2.05 to $2.15 per share, which represents a 7.1% annual growth from fiscal 2019 results from the midpoint of the 2020 range. Pat will take you through the drivers [earth] of our NFE growth. It's important to note that 65% to 75% of our NFE will come from our regulated businesses, with New Jersey Natural Gas accounting for 55% to 60%.

I'll now turn the call over to Pat for more detail on our financial performance and outlook. Pat?

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Patrick J. Migliaccio, New Jersey Resources Corporation - Senior VP & CFO [4]

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Thanks, Steve. Good morning, everyone. Slide 14 shows the main drivers behind the NFE changes from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2019. For 2019, we reported NFE of $175 million or $1.96 per share compared to $240.5 million or $2.74 per share in 2018. Excluding the $60 million tax benefit, NJR's consolidated NFE in 2019 declined by $5.9 million with approximately $4 million of decline coming from our unregulated businesses and roughly $2 million coming from our regulated businesses. On the regulated side, NJNG's utility gross margin increased in 2019, but was primarily offset by higher O&M expenses and reduced contributions from BGSS incentives. Partially offsetting this decline, NJR Midstream saw a decrease in O&M expenses.

Turning to our unregulated businesses, CEV performed exceptionally well in 2019, reporting a $63 million NFE improvement due to higher SREC sales and an increase in investment tax credits. As a reminder, in 2018, most of our solar projects were financed with sale-leaseback transactions, which is not the case in 2019. Offsetting CEV's positive NFE contributions, Energy Services had a challenging year when compared to its outstanding 2018 performance.

Turning to Slide 15 and as Steve mentioned, we reached a settlement with the Jersey Board of Public Utilities on NJNG's rate case. The BPU approved a $62 million rate increase that became effective on November 15 and equates to an annualized NFE increase of approximately $37 million. Under the terms of the settlement, our overall allowed rate of return is 6.95%, which includes a return on equity of 9.6% with a 54% equity layer. Our depreciation rate increased to 2.78% compared to the prior rate of 2.4%.

Importantly, the approved rate base is $1.8 million. We expect it to grow at an annualized rate of approximately 10% over the next 3 years.

Clean Energy Ventures generates a significant portion of its revenues from the sale of SRECs and hedges part of its expected production of SRECs to futures contracts. The status of our current SREC hedging program is highlighted on Slide 16. For energy years 2020 and 2021, we're 91% and 86% hedged. At these ratios, our SREC revenues would be largely unaffected by future changes in SREC prices. For energy year 2022, we have 50% of our SREC revenues hedged, and we'll continue to monitor the market to add to our hedge position.

In addition, I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss the solar market in New Jersey. As many of you know, the State of New Jersey has passed the BPU of closing the existing solar market in balance and creating successor programs in 2020 to support industry growth through the next decade. NJR is working closely with the BPU to help with a successful transition. While this is ongoing, market fundamentals remain strong. Current energy year 2020 and 2021 SRECs are trading in the $225 to $235 range or 89% of the SACP. And energy year 2022 SRECs are priced at about $200 or 84% of SACP.

On Slide 17, I'll [tick on] some of the characteristics underpinning the strength of our balance sheet. On the top left, you can see that as of September 30, 2019, we had over $640 million of available liquidity. Both NGR and NJNG's credit facilities were almost fully available. On the top right, we show our long-term debt maturity schedule. You can see it is well balanced and with no more than $150 million maturing in any fiscal year. Note that the Leaf River bridge facility is not reflected in the schedule. We've until October of 2020 to repay it.

On the bottom left, we show that our debt to total capitalization ratio was 51% at the end of 2019 and is expected to reach 54% at the end of 2020. The increase mostly reflects the investments we expect to make in SRL and Adelphia Gateway. Finally, at the bottom right, you can see that we maintain strong investment-grade credit ratings that reflect the strength of our balance sheet.

Slide 18 outlines our capital plan for fiscal 2020 and for the 3-year period through 2022. In general, our capital expenditures are expected to peak in 2020, mainly driven by our Adelphia Gateway project and SRL. For the 3-year period between 2020 and 2022, we expect to allocate more than 80% of our total CapEx to our regulated businesses with 54% dedicated to NJNG. The details of our capital plan can be found on Page 32 in the appendix.

Moving to Slide 19, you can see an update on our cash flows and the financing projections. Shortly after the end of fiscal 2019, we acquired Leaf River for $367.5 million, which was financed through a bridge facility. During the remainder of 2020, we'll access the debt and equity markets to fund the repayment of the facility. This equity issuance will satisfy our currently planned equity needs for fiscal 2020 and 2021. Importantly, we expect to achieve our long-term NFE growth rate of 6% to 8% after taking into account any dilution associated with the planned equity issuance.

On Slide 20, I'd like to point out the driving factors and main assumptions behind our guidance. We expect our regulated businesses to contribute between 65% to 75% of total NFE. New Jersey Natural Gas will contribute 55% to 60% of NFE with the recent rate case settlement adding approximately $0.34 per share when compared to 2019. For Midstream, we're assuming there will be no contribution from Adelphia and a minimal AFUDC contribution from PennEast, nearly identical to that in 2019.

We expect our unregulated businesses to contribute between 25% and 42% of total NFE. Energy Services is expected to return to its normal 5% to 15% contribution, which will provide about a $0.10 per share uplift in fiscal 2020. We expect CEV to contribute 20% to 25% of total NFE. This will be a reduction compared to 2019 due to lower ITCs, partially offsetting the NFE improvements we are seeing in the other segments.

With that, I'll turn it over to Steve for his closing remarks.

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Stephen D. Westhoven, New Jersey Resources Corporation - President, CEO & Director [5]

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Thanks, Pat. We expect NJR to continue delivering long-term value for its shareholders, anchored by our regulated utility and the infrastructure investment opportunities provided by our other business segments.

To summarize, we offer investors an attractive 8% to 11% expected total return based on our dividend yield of 2% to 3% and our long-term NFEPS growth of 6% to 8%. We appreciate that you took the time today to join us. And I'd like to recognize and thank our employees for all their hard work and dedication that drives our performance.

I'd like now to open the call for questions.

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Questions and Answers

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Operator [1]

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(Operator Instructions) Our first question comes from Travis Miller with Morningstar.

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Travis Miller, Morningstar Inc., Research Division - Director of Utilities Research and Strategist [2]

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Just questions on Leaf River here. You mentioned accretive. Is there any way that you can give kind of a range that's embedded in your guidance for that?

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Patrick J. Migliaccio, New Jersey Resources Corporation - Senior VP & CFO [3]

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Travis, this is Pat Migliaccio. We've indicated it's nominally accretive in fiscal year 2020 after taking into consideration the dilutive impacts of our equity issuance. I think if you think about this from a long-term perspective, the guidance we provided is -- think about this in terms of a double-digit ROE, but on the lower side.

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Travis Miller, Morningstar Inc., Research Division - Director of Utilities Research and Strategist [4]

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Okay, okay. And then when we think about strategically, was this just an opportunity that you saw come up at a good price and good growth potential, good return? Or is this something that you see as more strategic for the nonregulated segment, perhaps expanding more projects down there in the Gulf Coast or other LNG type related infrastructure?

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Stephen D. Westhoven, New Jersey Resources Corporation - President, CEO & Director [5]

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Travis, this is Steve. I think we've shared with you before that we've been in this market for quite some time looking at midstream assets, especially in certain areas that provide for growth and where we think there's some significant future opportunity. Leaf River fit that on all counts. So we were able to make the investment, able to meet it at a price that we thought -- we think is good for us and our shareholders. And we're going to continue to pursue these types of assets in the market. It's just a matter of -- it's hard to predict on when we'll be able to achieve the next acquisition or when the next one will come in. But certainly we're going to pursue this in the future.

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Travis Miller, Morningstar Inc., Research Division - Director of Utilities Research and Strategist [6]

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Sure. Okay. And then just one real other quick one here. The contracts you mentioned that 80% contracted, what's within those contracts, just in terms of variability? Is there price exposure or volume exposure? What's kind of the sensitivity around those contracts and then also on the uncontracted part?

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Stephen D. Westhoven, New Jersey Resources Corporation - President, CEO & Director [7]

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Travis, they're traditional contracts where the majority of the dollars coming in are fixed demand charges. And then the portion that isn't contracted, taken to the shorter-term market. So I would imagine 1 year, maybe less type time frame, park-and-loan type transactions. I think it's a typical mix for a storage facility, but really the attractive part of this or a majority of the revenues are fixed demand charges coming from customers in the longer contracted period.

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Operator [8]

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Our next question comes from Shar Pourreza with Guggenheim Partners.

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Shahriar Pourreza, Guggenheim Securities, LLC, Research Division - MD and Head of North American Power [9]

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So just one question. The incremental equity that you guys announced for 2020, I think some of it was shifted from '21. Have you provided any kind of -- is there any sort of cushion if we get a PennEast -- gets further delayed? So as we sort of think about your projected balance sheet metrics like FFO to debt, has the incremental equity raised provided some sort of a cushion should we get any sort of potential cash flow implications from further delays? So I guess, where do we stand around your balance sheet capacity?

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Patrick J. Migliaccio, New Jersey Resources Corporation - Senior VP & CFO [10]

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Shar, this is Pat Migliaccio. So I think it's fair to say that, that equity issuance contemplates PennEast in it. And should that result in a delay, that would provide us a little bit of cushion in the future.

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Shahriar Pourreza, Guggenheim Securities, LLC, Research Division - MD and Head of North American Power [11]

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Okay. Good. So that's what I want to confirm is the equity was not solely attributed to the Leaf acquisition, and part of it is building a cushion if there is a PennEast delay?

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Patrick J. Migliaccio, New Jersey Resources Corporation - Senior VP & CFO [12]

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Yes. So if you think about this from the purchase price, Leaf River purchase price was $367 million. If you looked at roughly a 50-50 debt/equity mix, break that down, it's $140 million. And so the balance would be, what I'll call, regular way equity needs that would satisfy capital expenditures for PennEast and/or Adelphia Gateway and other items that we have in our capital plan.

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Shahriar Pourreza, Guggenheim Securities, LLC, Research Division - MD and Head of North American Power [13]

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Can I just ask, Pat, what's the level of cushion, right? So can you just give me a little bit of a sensitivity towards sort of what your balance sheet capacity is, especially when you look at your credit metrics, FFO to debt, assuming that, let's say, the PennEast project gets a further delay? So like, I guess, what have you accounted for as far as the delay in the project?

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Patrick J. Migliaccio, New Jersey Resources Corporation - Senior VP & CFO [14]

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Shar, as you could appreciate, there are a number of variables that go into that, not the least of which is Energy Services performance, which in a year can -- actually can impact our equity. So I don't know that I can provide you any more specific guidance than we already have today.

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Operator [15]

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(Operator Instructions) At this time, there are no further questions. I would like to turn the conference back over to Dennis Puma for any closing remarks.

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Dennis R. Puma, New Jersey Natural Gas Company - Director, IR [16]

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All right. Thank you, Sharon. I want to thank everybody for joining us this morning. As a reminder, a recording of this call will be available on our website. And as always, we appreciate your interest and investment in New Jersey Resources. Goodbye.

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Operator [17]

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The conference has now concluded. Thank you for attending today's presentation. You may now disconnect.