Is SSE The Ultimate Retirement Share?

Published in Investing on 9 July 2012

Will shares in SSE help you build a FTSE-beating retirement fund?

The last five years have been tough for those in retirement. Portfolio valuations have been hammered, annuity rates have plunged and uncertainty has ruled the roost. There's no sign of things improving any time soon, either, as the eurozone and the UK economy look set to muddle through at best for some years to come.

A great way of protecting yourself from the downturn, however, is by building your retirement fund with shares of large, well-run companies that should grow their earnings steadily over the coming decades. Over time, such investments ought to result in rising dividends and inflation-beating capital growth, especially if you keep the shares within a tax-efficient ISA or SIPP.

It's no coincidence that the world's most successful investor, Warren Buffett, prefers such companies, and recently invested in a large FTSE 100 (UKX) company that fits the bill perfectly (you can find full details in this free report).

In this series, I'm tracking down the UK large caps that have the potential to beat the FTSE over the long term and support a lower-risk income-generating retirement fund. I'm going to kick off the series with a look at SSE (LSE: SSE), the UK's third-largest electricity utility and a share that's a big favourite of income investors, thanks to its superb dividend record.

Defensive performer

Utility shares are traditionally 'defensive' shares -- shares that are popular during times of economic volatility, such as we have seen in the last few years. SSE has benefited from this defensive bias and from the attraction its dividend policy holds for long-term investors looking for a reliable income. As a result, it has massively outperformed the FTSE 100 over the last 10 years:

Total Return (TR)20072008200920102011Trailing 10-yr avg.
SSE TR8.9%-22%0.8%11.5%11.5%11.6%
FTSE 100 TR7.4%-28.3%27.3%12.6%-2.2%5.8%

If you are building up a retirement portfolio, total return is a useful metric for measuring the performance of your stock, as it captures the effects of share price changes and reinvested dividends. These two ingredients combined are what make it possible for equity portfolios to regularly outperform cash and bonds over the long term.

The trailing 10-year average total return highlights just how valuable SSE's stability and strong dividend performance is for retirement investors. Despite SSE getting left behind in the rebound rally of 2009, it didn't crash in 2011 and its trailing total return over the last 10 years is double that of the FTSE 100.

What's the score?

To help me pinpoint suitable investments, I like to score companies on key financial metrics that highlight the characteristics I look for in a retirement share. Let's see how SSE shapes up:

Year founded1998*
Market cap£13.4bn
Net debt£5.9bn

5 year average financials

Operating margin4.79%
Interest cover5.28
EPS growth160%
Dividend growth10%
Dividend cover1.5
Dividend yield5.72%

*SSE was formed when two much older companies, Scottish Hydro Electric and Southern Electric, merged.

Here's how I've scored SSE on each of these criteria:

LongevityAlthough SSE has only been around in its present form for 14 years, its component businesses are much older and utilities generally have a long life expectancy.4/5
Performance vs FTSEDouble the FTSE 100's total return over 10 years seems pretty solid.4/5
Financial strengthUtilities tend to be heavily leveraged, and SSE's margins are slimmer than those of many other companies. However, both debt and margins are lower risk than average.3/5
EPS growthSSE's reported EPS figures are very volatile, due mostly to the impact of changing energy prices and regulatory restrictions. The underlying growth is more modest but stable.3/5
Dividend growthSSE has increased its dividend every year for 13 years, but sometimes pays out a very high proportion of earnings, increasing the risk that it might not be able to sustain the rate of increase.4/5

Total: 18/25

A score of 18/25 is pretty solid and, if anything, I think it underplays the security offered by SSE's large, heavily regulated business. Overall, I think that the figures suggest SSE could be a very strong candidate for a retirement fund portfolio.

Finally, if you are interested in dividend-paying retirement shares, I would strongly suggest you take a look at some of Neil Woodford's choices. Neil is one of the UK's most successful fund managers and specialises in identifying companies with strong income potential. You can find out about eight of Neil's biggest holdings in this free Fool report, "8 Shares Held By Britain's Super Investor", which I strongly recommend, as many of Neil's picks are excellent retirement shares.

Warren Buffett buys British! The legendary investor has recently topped up on his favourite UK blue chip. Discover what he bought -- and the price he paid -- within our latest free report!

Further investment opportunities:

> Roland owns shares in SSE.

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dmmjpaterson 09 Jul 2012 , 1:57pm

Great Solid Stock - paying a nice dividend which is set to grow more than inflation!!

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