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Can Severn Trent plc, Pennon Group plc and United Utilities Group plc provide “Brexit shelter”?

With less than a month to go before the UK goes to the polls, the FTSE 100 has been remarkably strong. This is mainly due to a significant bounce in the price of oil and other commodities such as silver, gold, platinum and zinc – all of which have delivered double-digit returns so far this year.

Calm before the storm?

However, there are a further 18 trading days to go before the UK goes to the polls in what could prove to be a significant moment in history for the UK and its citizens.

As an investor I’m less worried about what political mud is being slung by the remain or leave campaigns, both of which are working hard at rubbishing the other’s case. The truth is that time will tell how the country votes and whichever way that is could have an impact on my investments – especially if the vote takes the market by surprise.

A recent case in point is the 2015 General election. Those of us with long memories will remember that sectors such as housebuilders and energy suppliers were out of favour due to fears of a mansion tax and an energy price freeze. However, when the Conservatives won their majority, these sectors rallied as market fears subsided. So for me the chance of Brexit is still real, even though not likely given recent polls.

Getting defensive

While I’m not suggesting that investors sit on the sidelines with 100% of their portfolios in cash, I think that it’s prudent to diversify one’s portfolio with a selection of more defensive shares. In my view none are more defensive than utility companies Severn Trent (LSE: SVT), Pennon Group (LSE: PNN) and United Utilities (LSE: UU) all of which offer investors a bank-like home for their money – albeit with a little more volatility rewarded with a far higher yield.

This week all three of these businesses reported good progress during the first year of ‘AMP6’ the Asset Management Plan, a regulatory period that covers the sector and spans 2015 to 2020.

Investors should be comforted to know that unlike many other businesses, the water industry is regulated. While this makes it difficult for the companies in the sector to raise prices in order to improve profits, it does give these businesses a competitive advantage as nobody is going to take their business from them.Customers are customers for life, or at least until they move to a different area.

As we can see from the chart, the shares tend to outperform the blue chip index in times of uncertainty and when the market is volatile. Of course the opposite is true when investors are in ‘risk-on’ mode.

Secure income stream on tap

Despite the significant debt pile carried by each company they can continue to pay out, and indeed grow, the dividend year after year. And while that growth isn’t spectacular, it’s only heading in one direction – up.

Indeed, turning to the 10-year chart – despite the ups and downs of the market it may come as a surprise to some that all of these boring, low-growth dividend payers have beaten the market. That’s better than the average private investor who usually underperforms the market.  

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Dave Sullivan has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.