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Is this FTSE 100 share a ‘best buy’ as the coronavirus crisis rolls on?

You might think that Centrica (LSE: CNA) would be a brilliantly-defensive FTSE 100 share to buy today. It’s safe to say that the essential services of utilities providers gives them better earnings visibility than most other shares in these troubled times. Unfortunately the British Gas owner can enjoy no such luxury.

Why? Well customers continue to leave it in whopping great numbers in search of a better deal. Latest data from Energy UK showed that more than 1m individuals had changed their energy supplier in January and February. This was up 20% from the same period in 2019.

The trade association’s data showed that growth in the numbers switching was highest in February too. Then a mammoth 558,836 customers changed their provider, a 23% year-on-year rise. Some 34% of all switchers in February went from one of the nation’s largest suppliers like Centrica to one of the small- or mid-tier operators.

Screen of price moves in the FTSE 100

Under pressure

There have been a number of high-profile casualties in the energy supply market of late. But there’s still a glut of cheap, independent suppliers to pull profits away from the FTSE 100 share’s British Gas unit.

As Energy UK head Audrey Gallacher comments: “This a significant increase in switching numbers… [It] shows that increasing numbers of consumers take advantage of the competitive and innovative services on offer by around 60 suppliers.”

The coronavirus crisis could well have boosted the number of switchers in more recent weeks too. With millions of furloughed workers now on reduced pay, and economic uncertainty rising, it’s likely that the number of people hunting for a better deal on their energy and gas has risen.

You should expect the volumes of households leaving British Gas to remain elevated as a painful recession looms. An Official for National Statistics study shows that more than one in five adults are already reporting a hit to their household finances following the Covid-19 breakout. And almost half of adults expect their finances to deteriorate over the next 12 months.

Avoid this FTSE 100 share

But of course, Centrica’s problems aren’t confined to its retail division. Falling Brent prices will hit adjusted operating cash flows at its Upstream division by around £100m, it advised recently. But this is not all that’s been plaguing the FTSE 100 stock.

The planned sales of Spirit Energy and its nuclear asset, meanwhile, have had to be paused “until financial and commodity markets have settled,” it said. To complete the run of bad news, Centrica has also endured additional power outages at its Dungeness B and Hinkley Point B nuclear plants.

Centrica comes pretty cheap right now, its share price commanding a forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of below 5 times. The fallen energy giant is tipped to hit fresh record lows around 32p this month. There’s no reason to expect it to break out of its wretched tailspin either.

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Royston Wild has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.