That's the message
power analyst Fred Schultz has for California and its politicians.
As the Golden State faces another day of rolling blackouts,
begs its lenders not to push its utility --
Southern California Edison
-- into bankruptcy;
Gov. Gray Davis
meets with the generators he loves to hate; and the generators face the possibility of a windfall profits tax.
Schultz, meanwhile, hopes common sense will soon prevail over the current punitive, political nonsene. He is referring to the recent rash of political action aimed at the profits of generators that sell power into the California market, specifically, the California
moves to impose a windfall profits tax on generators.
On Monday, the Senate passed a bill that would require generators to fork over every dollar they charge for power above an $80 per megawatt hour (MWh) threshold to the state in the form of a tax.
Unfortunately, it's the California consumer who is left in the dark by the politics of power.
The bill would effectively set price caps -- something that is really the purview of the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
, or FERC. The bill now moves to the Assembly, where it appears to have support. In fact, the Assembly is considering its own version of the windfall profits legislation, lowering the threshold to $60 per MWh.
Schultz says this action simply highlights the counterproductive nature of California's punitive, political approach to solving the state's energy crisis. "This round of legislative action is defeating, time-wasting and value-destroying," he says. "The initiatives under way, if passed, will ultimately destroy the California power markets as we know them today."
He has a point. The problem in California is a lack of electricity supply, a result of a decade of regulatory posturing that discouraged the development of new power plants to meet the surging demand for power from the burgeoning high-tech economy.
At the very time California pols should be focused on encouraging new generation, they are proposing policies that actually discourage new development. "California legislators should ask themselves this: Does taxing the sale price for electricity create more electricity supply or less?" Schultz asks rhetorically, invoking a lesson from the Boston Tea Party in his answer. "Less! Samuel Adams must be spinning in his grave right now. How in The Almighty's name is this sort of ass-backward legislation going to create more energy in the state?"
And, now some members of the state
say they don't even need the assistance of generating companies to solve the problem -- they'll build the plants themselves. A power company with Davis as the CEO and engineered by members of the legislature, the same group that managed to create the policies that led to the current crisis, isn't terribly comforting.
The state needs the help of the generating companies. Companies such as
can and will help California solve their supply problems if they are given a chance.
Fortunately, few observers believe the windfall tax bill will be enacted and even fewer think such a law would withstand a constitutional challenge.
"We do not expect the proposed legislation to be enacted into law,"
Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown
power analyst Jay Dobson told clients on Tuesday. "The law as currently written would provide a major disincentive to both the development of new generating assets as well as the operation of high cost existing assets. This would further exacerbate the shortage of generating capacity in the state at a time when the shortage is likely to seem most acute."
Schultz is more direct. "This is warped."
Windfall Tax: Dimming for Generators?
As rolling blackouts get more frequent, the political hyperbole in Sacramento only will increase. And, with other punitive measures similar to the windfall tax likely to surface, investors are concerned about the impact of such proposals on generating companies doing business in the, er, tarnished state.
Alex. Brown's Dobson expects some giddiness in the stocks of generators as temperatures -- both atmospheric and political -- rise. "Although we don't expect the proposed legislation to pass, we do expect the level of 'headline' risk to remain high," he notes. "This will likely lead to more volatility for the generation stocks in the near term."
Still, Dobson predicts the "generation sector will outperform" as profits surpass expectations this summer. His favorite names are Calpine, Reliant and AES. He rates all strong buy. His firm has recently provided banking services for Calpine and Reliant.
Schultz says Calpine and Mirant stand out in the group, a result of their approach to the California markets. "Calpine and Mirant are reinvesting heavily in California and are in the game for the long haul," he notes. "Unlike the Texas trio
, Dynegy and Reliant that receives a lot of criticism from the governor, both Calpine and Mirant are dealt with favorably and receive the benefit of the doubt in Sacramento. They have dedicated millions of dollars to the development of meaningful power supplies in the state." He rates both strong buy and his firm has not provided recent banking services to either.
He also notes that Calpine has long-term power supply contracts that would avoid the punitive measures of a windfall profits tax, and Mirant is "more than adequately" reserved for possible write-offs associated with outstanding receivables for selling power in the state.
Davis Meets the Generators
The governor has summoned top executives from the generating companies to Sacramento on Wednesday to discuss the current crisis and possible solutions. However, many important players -- including Calpine, Dynegy and Enron -- may not even show up.
Many of the generating companies are soured by Davis' refusal to "call off the dogs" in his investigations of possible collusion, price gouging and intentional withholding of generation during periods of high demand. At the same time, Davis is hoping to convince the generators to forgive a large portion of past receivables, to cut prices on long-term power contracts, and to build new low-cost generation.
The irony isn't lost on Schultz. "Davis now has a Senate-backed initiative to castrate the earnings stream of wholesale generators should he choose to back such an initiative," he notes. "Who in their right mind would walk into a poker game knowing the deck was rigged against them? Is extortion still a crime?"
Maybe this time around, Davis will put his cards on the table. If not, the generators have every right to walk away from the table.
Christopher S. Edmonds is president of Resource Dynamics, a private financial consulting firm based in Atlanta. At time of publication, Edmonds was long Mirant, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Edmonds cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to
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