I may be a UNC Tarheel fan, but Duke Energy (NYS: DUK) won the game today. The utility's earnings are in, and merger madness seems to have given way to smooth sailing. But are Duke's disaster days behind it, or is there more dirty laundry to air?

Number crunching
Duke Energy officially merged with Progress Energy in July, bumping the megacompany's sales up to $6.72 billion, a whopping 69.6% higher than Q3 last year.

Net income also rose, up 25%, to $594 million. Adjusted diluted EPS, the real number investors care about, dipped to $1.47, from $1.50 a year ago. The discrepancy between rising net income and lower EPS comes from merger share dilutions.


Duke still managed to beat Wall Street consensus by $0.03, though, making it a dual top-line and bottom-line winner.

For a peek of long-term perspective, here's how Duke's sales and income have fared over the past five years:

Source: Author, data from e*trade.com

Looking ahead, Chairman, President, and CEO Jim Rogers noted in a press release:

Our strong quarterly performance keeps us on track to achieve our targeted 2012 adjusted diluted EPS guidance range of $4.20 to $4.35.

Look behind to see ahead
But even if Jim Rogers has his sights set on the future, investors need to remember the past. The Duke Energy and Progress Energy merger turned out to be a PR nightmare for the company, and it's still feeling the effects today.

The details took seven months longer than expected to finalize and, just hours after the merger was completed, the Board forced out Progress CEO Bill Johnson and brought back Duke's Jim Rogers.

The company has managed to mostly remain out of the news since then, but the North Carolina Utilities Commission is investigating Duke for foul play. This inquiry comes at an especially bad time for the utility, as the Commission also calls the shots for a $359 million rate raise ask -- the first such ask in 25 years.

Squeaky clean
But new leadership's not all bad. The recent presidential election might mean good news for Duke. Its $2.2 billion "clean coal" power plant is $25 million and months away from coming online. The President's goal for cleaner energy includes "clean coal," and projects such as this one may continue to benefit from federal financial perks.

Duke also entered the renewables sector in 2007, and has been rapidly expanding its wind operations. It's got 1000 MW currently spinning, and 5,500 MW of "potential projects" lined up. The new political climate might just be enough to make its "potential" transform into "profitable."

I dig dividends
For many investors out there, Duke Energy is on their radar because of its big fat dividend. The company offers one of the highest yields around, and seems to have the financials to back it up.

Company

Dividend Yield

Payout Ratio

Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Exelon  (NYS: EXC)

5.9%

121%

0.9

National Grid  (NYS: NGG)

5.5%

69%

2.5

Duke Energy

4.8%

90%

0.9

First Energy (NYS: FE)

4.8%

80%

1.4

Southern Company

4.3%

77%

1.14

Dominion Resources  (NYS: D)

4%

100%

1.7

Northeast Utilities (NYS: NU)

3.5%

75%

1.0

NextEra Energy  (NYS: NEE)

3.5%

46%

1.6

Source: e*trade.com, finviz.com

From my perspective, Duke's a clear quantitative winner. Exelon's paying out too much in dividends, National Grid has a whole lotta debt, but Duke's ducks are all in line. The company's adjusted diluted EPS payout ratio is 65% to 70%, meaning that it even has the ability to continue to raise its dividend in years to come.

Foolish bottom line
Duke's merger leaves a sour taste in my mouth, and I'm not ready to throw a bone at this utility yet. That said, the company's financials are more than solid, and it's setting itself up for important energy diversification in the years to come.

With just one quarter behind bigger Duke, I'm going to sit this one out for now. I'll wait to see how the legal fights finish, check in again on the company's fundamentals, and make my decision accordingly.

 

For investors looking for juicy dividends today, there's no reason to wait for Duke's next report. The Motley Fool has compiled a special free report outlining our nine top dependable dividend-paying stocks. It's called "Secure Your Future With 9 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks." You can access your copy today at no cost! Just click here to discover the winners we've picked.

The article 1 Utility's Ultimate Earnings originally appeared on Fool.com.

Justin Loiseau has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. You can follow him on Twitter, @TMFJLo, and on Motley Fool CAPS, @TMFJLo. The Motley Fool has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Dominion Resources, Exelon, National Grid plc (ADR), and Southern Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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