June 18, 2018

Optimally the utilities’ long-term views should result from their local connections.

Sir, Jonathan Ford describes in very clear terms why “private equity firms shouldn’t own regulated utilities, full stop. In very long-term businesses providing essential services, investors should have time horizons to match.” “Why private equity investors and utilities should not mix” June 17.

But there is more to this issue. In 2000, Electricidad de Caracas, EdC, the electrical utility of Caracas, Venezuela, that had been founded and managed by a local family for 105 years, was sold off to a big time international player, AES. I was in shock, and so I wrote in several Op-Eds

Not only would we lose the natural accountability of the management that exists when these are your neighbors and suffer the same service failings that you do; but it would also take that company out of the hands of electrical engineers and place it into the hands of financial engineers. 

Yes, the new owners proceeded to sell assets, repurchase shares, take up new loans and pay out dividends, leveraging the company up to the tilt… and many needed investments were delayed.

While EdC was being negotiated I wrote: "From my local electrical distributor, what I'm interested in seeing are good engineers with colorful helmets, accompanied by competent accountants with simple calculators, which only serve to add and subtract. I do not like to observe the presence of lawyers, financiers, brokers, publicists and other professionals little or nothing related to bring me the light home…. I get very scared when I hear terms like ‘unfriendly takeovers’ ‘poison pills’ and ‘golden parachutes’.”

To that I should have added “And I absolutely want my neighbors to hold management control and a clear majority of shares in that company.”

PS. The EdC story had an even sadder ending. In 2007, after trying to negotiate tariffs with a loony government, AES withdrew. Unfortunately, the Local that stood up to forcibly repurchase it, was Pdvsa… and you probably know what happens to anything that is in the hands of the current Pdvsa.