The Seattle Times editorial board today urges the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to “Block PSE sale,” arguing that the highly leveraged proposed buyout of Puget Sound Energy would be “hazardous to ratepayers.” And, well, I don’t disagree.
Why do this transaction? For shareholders, the answer is easy: They get $30 a share, in cash, immediately, for a stock that traded recently in the lower $20s, with the profit taxable at the 15 percent capital-gains rate.
For Puget’s CEO, Stephen Reynolds, who has options on 300,000 shares priced at $22.51, the attraction is obvious. He also gets a payment of $4.4 million from the acquirers, with the tax paid by them.
[…] And then there are the people who rely on Puget for their electricity and gas. As a result of this deal, they get a utility burdened with $1.4 billion in extra parent-company debt, a mortgage that buys the ratepayers nothing of value to them. And it is not a mortgage really, but a medium-term debt that will have to be refinanced a few years hence at an interest rate no one can now determine.
Last week I kinda-sorta debated uber-conservative Grover Norquist on the limits of governments, and it’s issues like this that really test the ideological purity of self-proclaimed free marketeers like Norquist and his ilk. No doubt, this is a deal that is good for shareholders. And no doubt the unchallenged doctrine of the invisible hand would argue that the market always makes the most efficient allocation of resources. But it’s hard to see what if any benefit would accrue to ratepayers by having foreign investors mortgage PSE’s assets to facilitate a leveraged buyout?
PSE is after all a monopoly throughout most of its coverage area, leaving consumers no alternative supplier of electricity or natural gas. Given a deregulated market (the conservative ideal), it would be equally foolish to expect investors to build competing power lines in response to rising rates as it would to believe that competing power grids could somehow constitute an efficient allocation of resources.
One can reasonably argue with specific regulations and the specific decisions of government regulators, but there are simply some products and services for which a regulated monopoly—or God forbid, a government agency—provides the most efficient and beneficial economy of scale. To inflexibly argue otherwise—that regulation is always harmful and that the public sector is always less efficient than the private—is to argue that PSE should not only be free to sell out to whomever it pleases under whatever conditions most benefit shareholders, but that it should also be free to raise utility rates as high as consumer demand will bear… which in a natural monopoly for a crucial commodity can be pretty damn high.
Imagine electricity rates quadrupling the way gasoline has done, with no end in sight, and imagine what havoc that would wreck on our local economy. That would be an unregulated free market at work.
I expect there are arguments to be made against recommendations that the UTC block PSE’s sale, but I’m wondering if anybody can cogently argue against giving UTC the power to do so?