Charlie Eaton, THE SACRAMENTO BEE
As the lights went out across California this month, residents wondered if we will ever fix PG&E — the nation’s largest for-profit electric utility.
Some predictably joked that we should simply unleash the power of that mythical institution, which some economists still refer to as the “free market.” But PG&E’s latest failure illustrates that markets — and how well they work for consumers — always depend on state regulation. For this reason, California must use the crisis to deeply reform its utility regulations.
A critical regulatory choice for any market is the allowed forms of ownership for organizations that sell goods in the market. California’s courts, lawmakers and regulators are confronting this very issue as PG&E seeks to emerge from a bankruptcy that stems from its responsibility for recent wildfire catastrophes. The specific questions are: Who will own PG&E? How much control will regulators give them? And how much profit can owners extract from the utility?
Any changes to PG&E’s ownership will have big consequences for consumers and communities as California tries to transition to a carbon-neutral power grid. So, policymakers should take into consideration the latest social science on how the form of ownership will affect both consumers and society.
The first big lesson from recent research is about who should not be allowed to own PG&E – namely Wall Street. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other policy players should take every step necessary to block a consortium of 24 private equity and hedge funds that are currently attempting a hostile takeover of PG&E. Why?
The interests and track record of the investors trying to take over PG&E speak for themselves. These types of funds explicitly seek to extract windfall profits from the companies they acquire, with little concern for the long-term economic viability or social importance of the company. It is telling that PG&E’s largest current group of shareholders are Abrams Capital, Knighthead Capital and Redwood Capital — a rival alliance of hedge funds that is trying to maintain control after running PG&E into the ground just 17 years since the company’s last bankruptcy.
Private equity and hedge fund ownership is especially pernicious in sectors with large public subsidies and little competition. For example, my colleagues and I show in a forthcoming article for the Review of Financial Studies that investor ownership has had dire consequences in the for-profit college sector. When federally subsidized for-profit colleges are owned by outside investors, we find that they are more likely to increase student loan debt, cut faculty-student ratios and engage in fraudulent recruitment.