Wildfires caused by PG&E Corporation (NYSE:PCG) appear to now consume PCG stock. This utility finds itself in trouble as its negligence led to numerous wildfires across northern California. As a result, PCG stock is now in freefall.
In its descent, PCG has exhibited the one trait one never wants to see in a utility stock — instability.
RIP PCG Stock
I usually think “opportunity” when I hear about instability in most stocks. I often see a scandal or a setback in an equity and think “buying opportunity.” Events such as a big earnings miss, an unexpected CEO departure, a sex scandal, or the like often hit companies. Stockholders often react overreact to such occurrences, selling off a stock much more than the ensuing event justifies.
The lows of the financial crisis serve as a great example. Investors who bought into the S&P 500 near its March 2009 low of 611 benefited from huge profits once the negative feelings abated.
Not this time.
PCG stock lost more than 40% of its value on Monday. After Monday, the freefall continued. Since early October, Pacific Gas & Electric stock has lost more than 85% of its value.
Negligence by PG&E over poorly maintained power lines sparked wildfires causing billions in property damage. Sadly, many also perished in these fires. This will not go away with a few million in payoffs or a better earnings report in the next quarter. Given the magnitude of the financial damages PCG stock faces, bankruptcy remains its only viable option.
As of this writing, PCG trades in the single digits and continues to fall. Another shoe dropped as the S&P Dow Jones Indices announced Teleflex (NYSE:TFX) would replace PCG stock in the S&P 500 on Jan. 18.
Utility Stocks Require a Different Investor Mindset
The issues go well beyond mere company negligence. The company also violated a rarely discussed assumption. PCG stock represents a utility. Nobody invests $5,000 in a utility in hopes of finding the next Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and getting rich. Investors buy a utility stock to benefit from a stable, slow-growth equity that yields dividend income.
More than that, investors expect these companies to define stability. These firms rarely face competition when they own the infrastructure. Their profit growth tends to mirror household formation increases and inflation. These firms often generate healthy dividends, but little else in the way of news. Peers such as NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE), Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) and Southern Company (NYSE:SO) quietly keep the power on, collect profits and pay dividends.
If anything displaces a utility, one expects it would entail a technological shift such as the solar roof from Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA). Few expect widespread negligence to take such a company down. However, PCG has become the exception. Looking back, the 2000 film Erin Brockovich should have served as a clue of the chronic issues that persist with PG&E. The negligence that caused the lawsuit discussed in that movie did nothing to change the company. As a result, PG&E faces another bankruptcy. Now, investors have to rethink whether the Warren Buffett mantra of “buy when there’s blood in the streets” (or in California’s case, when there’s fire) should apply to utilities.
Final Thoughts on PCG Stock
Due to its negligence, Pacific Gas & Electric reminded us that the instability we might tolerate from most equities has no place in a utility stock like PCG. More often than not, mistakes or unexpected setbacks create buying opportunities in stocks. However, with the essential role utilities play, instability can easily destroy such a company. This has become the case with PCG stock. Now, bankruptcy has become the company’s only option.
Bottom line, utilities should draw little attention. PCG stock broke that cardinal rule in the most outrageous manner imaginable. Now, bankruptcy courts will decide the fate of PG&E. It goes without saying that those who own this equity should get out before its lights out. More importantly, it reminds us that utility stocks should generate dividends, not attention.
As of this writing, Will Healy did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned stocks. You can follow Will on Twitter at @HealyWriting.