What a PG&E Bankruptcy Would Mean

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On November 8, shares of PG&E Corp. (NYSE: PCG) closed near $49. A week later the closed at just over $17. What happened in between may lead the largest gas and electric utility in northern California to file for bankruptcy protection.

Late Friday, Reuters published an exclusive report that the company considering filing for bankruptcy as a result of devastating and deadly forest fires in 2017 and 2018 that could cost the utility billions in liabilities related to the fires. Also on Friday, PG&E said it would hire a search firm to find new directors for the company’s board to broaden its perspective and to beef up its fire protection processes.

In a statement the company didn’t offer much in the way of specifics:

PG&E’s board and management are working diligently to assess the company’s potential liabilities as a result of the wildfires and the options for addressing those liabilities. We recognize the need to balance the interests of many stakeholders while maintaining safe, reliable and affordable services for our customers, which is always our top priority.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001 following a run-up in wholesale electricity prices that were later linked to Enron’s manipulation of the California power market. Then-governor Gray Davis used state funds to bail out PG&E and paid the price at the ballot box, losing to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the next election. PG&E ultimately paid more than $10 billion to creditors on its exit from bankruptcy. The company’s customers each paid an estimated $1,300 to $1,700 over a period of nine years in the form of a surcharge on their electricity bills.

New governor Gavin Newsom is unlikely to want to follow in Davis’s footsteps and may be willing to let PG&E go through with a debtor-in-possession plan. The catch, of course, is who will eventually pay: PG&E shareholders or PG&E customers? How California answers that question this time around is the big question.

During a conference call on November 16, Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told investors that “the agency doesn’t want PG&E to go into bankruptcy.” At the same time, Picker chastised the firm over what he characterized as its lack of accountability.

The company has admitted that it experienced two problems with its power lines on the day the Camp Fire was ignited. The fire, which was not contained until a week after Thanksgiving, is blamed for at least 86 deaths and the destruction of more than 18,000 homes and other buildings.

PG&E warned shortly after the fire started that if its equipment was determined to be the cause of the fire, the company’s potential liability could far exceed its insurance coverage, resulting in a material effect on the company’s financial health.

The California state legislature passed a bill that allowed the company to bill customers some of the costs related to the 2017 fires but failed to include similar coverage for 2018. Absent a legislative fix, PG&E has little choice but to file for bankruptcy protection and let the chips fall in the vicinity of the state lawmakers.

PG&E stock traded down more than 21% Monday morning, at $19.27 in a 52-week range of $17.26 to $48.42. The stock’s 12-month consensus price target is $40.13.

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