Capitol Alert

‘Game-changer:’ PG&E takeover fight ramps up as wildfire victims team with hedge funds

In a jolt to PG&E Corp., a group representing wildfire victims Thursday teamed with up a consortium of Wall Street hedge funds trying to execute a hostile takeover of the utility.

In a filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the wildfire victims’ group aligned themselves with the hedge funds that hold billions of dollars in PG&E bonds.

The bondholder hedge funds said they would inject $28 billion into the troubled company. Of that, $24 billion would go into a “fire claims trust” to pay off all wildfire liabilities — including claims held by under-insured fire victims and insurance companies that have paid settlements to their policyholders.

The payouts would come in a 50-50 mix of cash and new PG&E stock, leaving the claims trust in control of about 40 percent of the company, according to a joint statement from the bondholders and victims. The hedge funds, in return for their investment, would have nearly 59 percent of the company’s stock, according to the court filing, effectively wresting control from existing shareholders.

The alliance with fire victims gives the bondholder hedge funds, which have been trying for months to take over PG&E, a potentially powerful new ally that has considerable sympathy in the Capitol.

“This is a game-changer,” said Jared Ellias, a bankruptcy law expert at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. “They are onboard with the bondholders.

“The two biggest creditors are teaming up and saying, ‘We want to be the ones to steer this ship,’” Ellias said. The bondholders and fire victims are owed billions of dollars.

The $24 billion trust is designed to pay all the damaged caused by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the 2017 and 2018 wildfires. It represents about $5 billion more than PG&E has offered.

The court filing doesn’t spell out how the money would be divided between fire victims and the insurance companies.

“The proposal presents a path forward that recognizes the victims’ losses and puts their interests ahead of shareholders,” said Robert Julian, a lawyer for the fire victims, in a prepared statement.

The move came a week after PG&E made a tentative $11 billion settlement with the insurers, a development that infuriated wildfire victims whose damages haven’t been fully covered by insurance. Sacramento lobbyist Patrick McCallum, who runs a group called Up from the Ashes and lost his home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, said last week that fire victims were considering partnering with the bondholders if they couldn’t get a fair settlement from PG&E.

McCallum declined comment Thursday. Last week he derided PG&E’s offer to fire victims as insultingly low and said, “They’re clearly trying to squeeze victims.”

PG&E, in a statement responding to the bondholder-victim partnership, said it is “committed to working with the remaining individual plaintiffs to fairly and reasonably resolve their claims.” The utility added that the bondholders’ plan would saddle the company with a pile of new high-interest debt that would cost ratepayers “billions of dollars.”

The company is facing a June 2020 deadline, set by the Legislature, to exit bankruptcy. Otherwise it won’t be eligible to participate in a wildfire insurance fund set by the state earlier this year.

In Thursday’s court filing, the bondholders and fire victims said PG&E’s settlement with insurers comes “at the expense of individual wildfire victims.” Among other things, they complained that the insurance settlement will mean “millions of dollars in profit” for an investor that holds billions of insurance claims and also is a major PG&E shareholder — a hedge fund called Baupost Group.

Earlier this month PG&E offered $16.9 billion to pay wildfire liabilities, on top of $1 billion previously offered to local governments affected by the 2017 and 2018 fires, for a total of $17.9 billion. Under that plan, PG&E would have paid $8.5 billion to insurers and $8.4 billion to fire victims for uninsured losses.

A week later, PG&E made the $11 billion settlement with insurers, giving the carriers $2.5 billion extra. But they only put $1 billion more into the total package. Fire victims’ representatives said the company in effect was pulling $1.5 billion off the table to victims. As a practical matter, the PG&E plan has the effect of “boxing in” the fire victims as they try to negotiate a settlement, the groups said in their court filing Thursday.

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
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