Wall Street's Dexterous Definition of Power Plant Control

We just filed a protest at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission challenging a group of financial institutions’ efforts to create a new loophole. First, a little background:

On February 27, a group of private equity and investment bank lien holders of a collection of US power plants called MACH Gen filed for permission to restructure. The lien holders are the private equity firms Angelo Gordon (through its control of Silver Oak); Cayman Islands-based Solus, and Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche entered into a Total Return Swap with the private equity firm Energy Capital Partners which, among other things, gives Energy Capital Partners the ability to direct and control the way Deutsche’s MACH Gen board member votes. In their own words: “The Applicants do not concede that the indirect interest of ECP Polaris through the TRS equates to ownership or control of the voting securities of a public utility for the purposes of the Commission’s consideration of this . . . Application.”

So Energy Capital Partners, which will in fact control a board seat through its Total Return Swap with Deutsche Bank, is claiming at FERC that this Total Return Swap does not in fact constitute control.

Similarly, Citigroup, through an affiliate it created SOL, entered into a total return swap with Solus, providing Citi with 5.8% of the equity in MACH Gen. But this total return swap does NOT convey control over a board seat.

Determination that a Total Return Swap conveys control of a public utility is important, in part, because the U.S. Executive Branch, the Federal Reserve and Congress are actively engaged in a robust debate about defining and limiting control that certain financial institutions have over energy commodity assets. I first testified before Congress in 2008 about the dangers of financial institutions controlling energy assets, and testified again before the Senate in 2011.  The U.S. Senate Banking Committee held a January 2014 hearing, “Regulating Financial Holding Companies and Physical Commodities,” which included testimony by the Federal Reserve, FERC and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  The U.S. Federal Reserve in January 2014 announced an Advanced Notice of Rulemaking concerning its authority allowing certain financial institutions to control physical energy assets.

If FERC allows this Total Return Swap loophole to stand, Public Citizen predicts expanded use of such financial agreements to undermine various federal government efforts to regulate control over energy assets. Allowing this loophole will establish a dangerous precedent that will harm the public interest.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum