If you look for a spark of life in the stock market these days, the search pretty much begins and ends with electric utility issues.
While the Dow Jones average of 30 industrials was climbing to record highs near the 3,000 mark earlier this year, the electric utility group languished in disfavor.But since late summer, as fears of recession gripped the markets, the roles have been reversed. From its low point for the year on Aug. 24 through Nov. 2, Dow Jones's average of 15 utilities climbed more than 13 percent.
Among the 15 common stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange that made new 52-week highs in the week ended Nov. 2, nine were shares of electric companies - from DQE Inc. in Pittsburgh to Houston Industries in Texas, from Dominion Resources on the East Coast to Pacific Gas & Electric in California.
As often happens in periods of market euphoria, investors shunned the group in the spring and early summer while they looked for racier ways to benefit from rising stock prices.
Now, analysts say, money is flowing back the other way looking for a high-yielding haven from the perils of a bear market.
"Investing in the electric utilities in a climate of economic weakness presents something close to a win-win situation," maintains Barry Abramson, an analyst at Prudential-Bache Securities, in a recent report spotlighting the group.
"Electric utilities would be strong in a sideways market. If the economy continues to stagnate and the stock and bond markets show no clear direction, the electric utilities should outperform thanks to their superior and very safe yields.
"On the other hand, if a recession continues to threaten and the Federal Reserve eases dramatically, falling interest rates would also provide a catalyst for the group.
"In fact, just about the only scenario that would be negative for the electric utilities would be a rapidly strengthening economy and a renewed bull market - a very unlikely outcome, at least in the near term."
The current level of utility dividends - the stocks yielded about 6.7 percent, on average, as of early this month - is an attraction by itself.
Beyond that, analysts say, utility profits and payouts aren't much affected by the ups and downs of the business cycle, and can even keep growing gradually in periods of recession.
"They offer high dividends that our analysts believe are secure," said Jack Lavery, director of global research at Marrill Lynch.
Utilities also stand to be prime beneficiaries of declining interest rates, since lower rates reduce the relative allure of bonds as the two classes of securities compete for the favor of yield-conscious investors.
But that last point has a flip side, caution some wary utility-watchers. When hopes for lower rates go unfulfilled, utility stocks often bear the brunt of their frustration.
The group fell sharply last January, for example, when a rise in worldwide interest rates caught many optimists off guard.
Whether the news is good or bad, however, many observers say utilities' ultra-sensitivity to changing interest-rate expectations often qualifies them as an advance indicator of where the rest of the stock market might be heading.
Said William LeFevre at Advest Inc.: "Frequently the utilities turn early, both before the broad stock market starts down and before it turns up."