Why Warren Buffett May Get Involved in the FirstEnergy Fiasco

Bribery, money laundering and racketeering may be routine in many nations, but these are serious offenses in the United States. FirstEnergy Corp. (NYSE: FE) is now in the midst of a federal bribery investigation that is tied to the Ohio House speaker and four associates being charged. The FBI has alleged that the group accepted $60 million to support a $1.5 billion government bailout of the utility’s nuclear plants.

With so many good stocks available to the public for investments, many investors immediately run away from companies that run into legal and potentially criminal issues. The market never receives bribery news well. Many investment managers and fiduciary companies even have charters against owning stocks of companies that are in trouble. One man is against anything that is tied to corruption or reputational challenges of this sort, and that man is Warren Buffett.

It seems crazy to imagine that the great Warren Buffett would dare get involved in any company that is alleged to be involved in bribery or money laundering, but there is a chance that he could become a hero in FirstEnergy and in the eyes of justice. Before thinking that Buffett’s team at Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) is about to jump blindly into a judicial mosh pit, it is important to consider how and why (and when) that could even come about.

Buffett prefers to buy clean assets in businesses that are simple to understand. He also prefers to have clean management teams with solid reputations and stellar track records. Until this came to light, some may have argued that this was the case with FirstEnergy.

At the start of this week, FirstEnergy was a $41.25 stock. It closed at $34.25 on Tuesday, with 41 million shares changing hands, and it closed at $27.09 on Wednesday, with more than 135 million shares traded. This is not just individuals selling the stock.

As far as any “Buffett Deal” here, the first consideration is that there is probably no way that Buffett and his team would jump in immediately with a high premium bid right at the onset of this storm. More information will need to come to light, but Buffett has been opportunistic during recessions with financings in distressed companies in the past. Buffett and his team also know the utility world quite well, and his past investments have been preferential to the regulated utility segment.

Before counting Buffett out, note the speculation in 2019 that Berkshire Hathaway would consider buying the much more troubled PG&E Corp. (NYSE: PCG). That never seemed to be worthy speculation, as PG&E has a very sketchy history, it is governed in California under rules that other utilities want to avoid, and it is a high-tax state. On top of that, PG&E will not be able to do anything to prevent earthquakes, massive winds and forest fires. It already has exposure out there in PacifiCorp. Berkshire Hathaway eventually put that speculation to bed by saying it does not want the wildfire risks.

FirstEnergy has a market cap of less than $15 billion after the drop in recent days, and that is a loss of more than one-third of the entire equity value of FirstEnergy’s stock. The utility’s dividend yield of 5.7% may now even look unsustainable. Its earnings per share of $2.58 in 2020 and its consensus estimates of $2.48 per share in 2020 and $2.63 in 2021 are all currently irrelevant based on this scandal.

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