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Utilities: A bright long-term outlook

Key takeaways

  • Utilities stocks experienced poor performance in 2023 as investors favored mega-cap growth stocks over defensive sectors.
  • However, that sluggish performance has led to low valuations for the stocks, which could come back into favor should the US economy weaken.
  • Over the longer term, the gradual transition toward renewables and away from carbon-based energy sources could provide a tailwind for utilities.
  • Electric utilities that are moving toward decarbonization could be particular beneficiaries of the shift to renewables.

For 2024 and beyond, the outlook for the utilities sector is strong. While the sector—along with other defensive sectors—was not in favor with investors over the past year, that could change if 2024 sees a weakening of the economic picture. Moreover, after a year of sluggish performance, many utilities stocks have recently sported compelling valuations.

But the sector’s long-term growth story is perhaps even more compelling: The US (and the world) is gradually shifting from an oil-driven economy to an electricity-driven economy. Utilities are poised to be primary beneficiaries of that shift.

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Out of favor in 2023

Utilities pulled back in 2023 as investors shifted their favor away from defensive stocks (which shined in 2022) and toward mega-cap growth companies. Gains in the S&P 500® were largely driven by a handful of companies in the technology and communication services sectors. Amid that narrow leadership, utilities simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. As of mid-December, utilities were on track to be the weakest performing sector in the S&P 500.

Chart shows year-to-date price performance of the utilities sector, versus that of the S&P 500. As of December 8, 2023, the utilities sector had lost 10.86%, compared with a 19.92% gain for the S&P.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Utilities sector performance is represented by the S&P Utilities Select Sector Index. Data as of December 8, 2023. Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices, a division of S&P Global.

But past performance is never a guarantee of future results, and investors should remember that the upside of poor performance is often lower valuations. By late 2023, valuations among utilities stocks had fallen significantly lower—and the sector was trading at one of its largest discounts to the S&P in the past 20 years.

Near-term outlook for 2024

As we look to 2024, the sector’s near-term performance may continue to be driven by investor sentiment and preferences. If the economy manages the delicate feat of a soft landing, and an era of strong growth and low inflation returns, then utilities could remain out of favor.

On the other hand, if the economic picture weakens, investors could turn back to defensive stocks. Utilities comprise one of the most defensive segments of the economy, because households and businesses, by and large, keep the lights on even when the economy is in its darkest hour. Should market volatility return, investors may again seek the stability, durable cash flows, and dividends that utilities have historically provided. A decline in interest rates could also be a positive for utility stocks, as it would make the dividends they pay more attractive relative to bonds.

A long-term tailwind

Over the longer term, the picture looks potentially even brighter. Utilities are at the epicenter of the gradual transition away from carbon-based fuels and toward renewable energy sources. Generating power from renewable resources is now more economical than generating power from fossil fuels, thanks to technology improvements and increased economies of scale among renewables.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is expected to continue to catalyze and accelerate this transition over years to come. That legislation aims to put the US on a path to substantially reduce greenhouse gases and make clean-energy options more accessible and affordable to consumers and businesses—via tax credits and other incentives to broaden adoption of renewables.

Meanwhile, consumers, businesses, and governments are actively seeking to reduce their carbon footprints. Forecasts estimate that the portion of US power generation that comes from renewable sources could roughly double by 2030.

Table shows current and projected percentages of electricity generated from renewables, nuclear energy, natural gain, and goal. In 2023 about 24% of electricity was generated from renewable sources. Projections of this figure from the US Energy Information Administration show it potentially rising to 49% of electricity generated in 2030.
Source: US Energy Information Administration.

As this energy transition continues, companies that are investing to expand their renewable-energy fleets could benefit. For example, NextEra Energy () and Sempra () have long-standing investments in the renewable energy segment. Such companies have seen solid earnings and dividend growth.

Fund top holdings1

Top-10 holdings of the Fidelity® Select Utilities Portfolio () as of October 31, 2023:

  • 13.5% – NextEra Energy ()
  • 13.5% – Southern Co. ()
  • 8.9% – Sempra ()
  • 8.0% – Constellation Energy Corp. ()
  • 7.4% – PG&E Corp. ()
  • 4.7% – Edison International ()
  • 4.3% – Public Service Enterprise Group ()
  • 3.9% – FirstEnergy Corp. ()
  • 3.5% – NRG Energy Inc. ()
  • 3.4% – Duke Energy Corp. ()

(See the most recent fund information.)

There could also be advantages for companies focused on nuclear energy, as nuclear could help bridge the energy gap as generation from renewables ramps up. Southern Company () and Constellation Energy () are among the nation's leaders. Southern Company has built 2 nuclear power plants in Georgia, which it brought online in July—allowing the company to complement its existing wind and solar efforts. Constellation Energy’s fleet of nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar generation facilities generate roughly 32,400 megawatts of capacity—enough to power more than 15 million homes and businesses—all of which is nearly 90% carbon-free.2

An uncertain short-term but strong long-term outlook

To be sure, it’s impossible to predict which market segments investors will favor over short periods, and it’s always possible that utilities could face another poor year. But low valuations and the possibility of defensives coming back into favor may contribute to a more constructive near-term outlook.

And over the long term, the outlook for utilities looks bright. In my opinion, renewable energy growth is no longer a question of if, but rather of when, and of how much renewable energy will fuel future generation. As the US and other countries worldwide march toward decarbonization, the utilities sector is at the center of the energy-generation transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Douglas Simmons

Douglas Simmons is a portfolio manager in the Equity division at Fidelity Investments.

In this role, Mr. Simmons manages Fidelity Telecom and Utilities Fund, Fidelity Select Utilities Portfolio, Fidelity VIP Utilities Portfolio, and the Fidelity Advisor Utilities Fund. As a member of Fidelity's Stock Selector Large Cap Group, he is also responsible for managing the utilities sleeves for various diversified sector-based portfolios.

Prior to assuming his current responsibilities in September 2005, Mr. Simmons served as a utilities analyst covering the electric and gas utility stocks.

Before joining Fidelity in 2003, Mr. Simmons worked as a financial analyst at the private equity firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst. Previously, Mr. Simmons was an investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley. He has been in the financial industry since 1997.

Mr. Simmons earned his bachelor of business administration degree in finance from the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated with highest honors, and his master of business administration degree from Harvard Business School.

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Before investing, consider the funds' investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. Contact Fidelity for a prospectus or, if available, a summary prospectus containing this information. Read it carefully. 1. Any holdings, asset allocation, diversification breakdowns or other composition data shown are as of the date indicated and are subject to change at any time. They may not be representative of the fund's current or future investments. The Top Ten holdings do not include money market instruments or futures contracts, if any. Depository receipts are normally combined with the underlying security. Some breakdowns may be intentionally limited to a particular asset class or other subset of the fund's entire portfolio, particularly in multi-asset class funds where the attributes of the equity and fixed income portions are different. Under the asset allocation section, international (or foreign) assets may be reported differently depending on how an investment option reports its holdings. Some do not report international (or foreign) holdings here, but instead report them in a "Regional Diversification" section. Some report them in this section in addition to the equity, bond and other allocation shown. Others report international (or foreign) holding as a subset of the equity and bond allocations shown. If the allocation without the foreign component equals (or rounds to) 100%, then international (or foreign) is a subset of the equity and bond percentage shown. 2. “Generation: A Diverse Clean Energy Portfolio,” Constellation Energy, accessed on November 26, 2023,

Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments or its affiliates. Fidelity does not assume any duty to update any of the information.

References to specific securities or investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. This information must not be relied upon in making any investment decision. Fidelity cannot be held responsible for any type of loss incurred by applying any of the information presented. These views must not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent of any Fidelity fund or Fidelity advisor. Investment decisions should be based on an individual's own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk. This piece may contain assumptions that are "forward-looking statements," which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

Stock markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing in stock involves risks, including the loss of principal.

Because of its narrow focus, sector investing tends to be more volatile than investments that diversify across many sectors and companies. Sector investing is also subject to the additional risks associated with its particular industry. The utilities industries can be significantly affected by government regulation, financing difficulties, supply and demand of services or fuel, and natural resource conservation. The S&P 500® Index is a market capitalization-weighted index of 500 common stocks chosen for market size, liquidity, and industry group representation to represent US equity performance. The S&P Utilities Select Sector index comprises those companies included in the S&P 500 that are classified as members of the utilities sector, with capping applied to ensure diversification among companies within the index.

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