By Noel Randewich and Nichola Groom
SAN FRANCISCO/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – PG&E Corp <PCG.N> shares soared 40 percent in after-hours trade on Thursday following a report that a regulatory official told investors the agency does not want the utility to go into bankruptcy should it be found responsible for this month’s deadly wildfire in northern California.
Bloomberg reported the comment by a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) official on a call hosted by Bank of America Corp <BAC.N>, citing a person familiar with the matter.
A CPUC spokesman said he could not confirm the remarks and Bank of America declined to comment. CPUC issued a statement emphasizing that state law requires it to consider a utility’s financial health when weighing a request to cover costs associated with wildfires.
“A utility filing bankruptcy is not in the best interest of consumers, but that decision is not the CPUC’s,” a CPUC spokeswoman told Reuters.
Late on Thursday, Moody’s cut parent PG&E’s credit rating to one notch above junk, although many of the company’s bonds were already trading at non-investment grade levels earlier in the day.
S&P Global Ratings, citing rising risks that the company may face from the wildfire, also lowered its rating on PG&E by one notch to BBB-minus.
It placed the company on CreditWatch with negative implications, saying the risks increase the probability of another downgrade over the next few months.
Investors are watching for clues about whether California’s government will step in to save PG&E should it eventually be found responsible for the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise a week ago, and should any potential liability exceeds the utility’s resources.
“The CPUC is mindful that in order for a utility to operate safely, it must have the financial means to function and implement new safety measures,” the commission said in the statement.
The after-hours surge in PG&E’s stock more than erased a 31 percent drop during Thursday’s regular trading session.
PG&E warned on Tuesday that it could face liability that exceeds its insurance coverage if its equipment caused the Camp Fire.
PG&E currently has no plans to file for bankruptcy, people close to the company said on Thursday.
The wild trading swings on Thursday illustrate the uncertainty investors face in valuing PG&E’s stock. The company’s market value dropped to a low of $9 billion on Thursday from $26 billion just last week.
Citigroup Inc <C.N> analysts on Wednesday estimated the company’s potential exposure from the blaze could exceed $15 billion.
The Camp Fire, and a second in Southern California, the Woolsey Fire, are still burning, with 56 people confirmed dead and nearly 300 still missing. The fires destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and threatened 15,500 buildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
The cause of the fires, the deadliest in California’s history, is under investigation. Pacific Gas and Electric Co, PG&E’s subsidiary, and Edison International’s <EIX.N> Southern California Edison have both told regulators they experienced equipment problems in areas around the times the fires were first reported.
TAPPING CREDIT LINES
In a bid to shore up its finances, PG&E said this week it borrowed more than $3 billion under credit lines available to it and Pacific Gas and Electric Co, the maximum available from those sources.
Distressed companies often tap their credit lines to boost cash as they work through their financial troubles. Citigroup analysts said PG&E may use the money to pay near-term maturities and in case credit ratings agencies downgrade the utility.
“As the company’s cash position diminishes, the risk of bankruptcy could increase unless politicians intervene,” Mizuho analyst Paul Fremont wrote in a note to clients on Thursday.
“For now, we look for signs of additional legislative and regulatory support for PG&E as the company works through the various legal processes with the Cal Fire.”
Trading in PG&E bonds was mixed after they fell broadly a day earlier.
Yields on its nearest maturities remained very elevated, however, and its October 2020 $800 million note <694308GT8=> shot above a 10 percent yield at one point, the first of PG&E’s bonds to pierce that threshold.
To keep PG&E from going bankrupt, California policymakers will face pressure to extend assistance provided in a bill approved last September for utilities to pass on to customers some of the costs related to wildfires, according to Moody’s. The bill mitigates liability from fires in 2017 and others starting in 2019, but made no provision for fires this year.
S&P said it expected the CPUC to support the company’s credit quality, adding there could be political pressure from public outrage over the wildfires that may hamper the CPUC’s efforts.
(Reporting by Noel Randewich in San Francisco and Nicholas Groom in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Dan Burns and Jessica DiNapoli in New York and Samantha Machado in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)