The utility industry in the United States has made a giant return to traditional rate-making in many parts of the country. For someone who is unfamiliar with the concept, here is a brief summary:
1. Utilities receive a “monopoly” on services in a particular region (a city or county) which means that they are the only company allowed to provide service (thus you don’t have 2 sets of power lines going to your house)
2. The utility submits their expenses and capital requirements to a state regulator, who approves the spending plan
3. For the portion of the utility funding that is provided by equity (shareholders), the company is allowed to earn a “rate of return” that gets included on rate-payers bills
When I was fully engaged in the industry in the 1990’s, there was massive talk of “de-regulation” and traditional “cost of service” regulation as described above was seen as an archaic relic to be disposed of as quickly as possible with newer, more innovative models. If you would have told someone in the mid 1990’s that here, 20 years later, utilities would be HAPPY to still be part of a guaranteed return on their regulated investments, you’d have been greeted with a blank look of incredulousness.
The most famous critique of this model was a CEO who was said to have stated that “this is the only industry where I can make more money by remodeling my office” which of course was technically a true concept. This sort of talk was endemic in the 1990’s.
To be fair, the entire energy business used to be run this way (except for the municipal entities which were completely owned by some part of the government), and now much of the generation and parts of customer services are run using other methods involving some sort of at least partial competition. The generation of power, for the most part, has been financed using alternate methods (auctions, price caps, etc…), but it is notable that the only utilities going forward with nuclear plants are those with the old-school rate of return regulation (Southern Company in Georgia and SCANA in South Carolina).
For those entities that are still primarily regulated (non-competitive) or whom have substantial portions of their business subject to this regulation, one item coming under fire is the “rate of return” that they receive on their equity capital. When I was in the industry this number was in the 12% – 14% range; per this WSJ article “Utilities’ Rates of Return Draw Flak”:
In 92 major rate decisions last year, regulators… granted gas and electric utilities returns of 10%, compared with 10.21% the prior year and 11% a decade ago.
These rates of returns, however, conflict with the type of risk profile and links to debt interest rates that traditionally anchor utility rates of return. Today interest rates are famously low, so why is it reasonable that utilities should earn 10% or more on returns when that sort of return is far out of reach in a 401(k) for investors, for example?
Further pressure on this model seems inevitable, although rate of return is rarely so simple because if a utility spends more than they plan, in most cases this essentially comes out of the return bucket, although their are exceptions like “pass through” increases for fuel which can be made depending on the jurisdiction. This sort of item should be watched by those who have utility investments, since a serious re-appraisal of this rate would likely push it down further.
As a long-time watcher of the industry, however, the continuing existence of this sort of rate of return regulation is astonishing, given how much it was ridiculed for so many years. It is sad that we haven’t come up with anything better in the interim. The issue with monopolies is not so much the rise in costs, but the lack of innovation, I once heard. This is the case with the rate of return model that continues to exist, today.
Cross posted at LITGM