Hydro One and “demonstrable consumer value”

Sorting out fact from fiction among Hydro One claims

The current media attention focusing on Hydro One and its executives is reminiscent of the not so distant past when Andre Marin was Ontario’s Ombudsman. In May 2015 an article in the Globe and Mail noted as a result of his report: “Hydro One issued faulty bills to more than 100,000 customers, lied to the government and regulators in a bid to cover up the problem, then spent $88.3-million in public funds to repair the damage.”

Hydro One installed Mayo Schmidt as CEO in 2015. Recent media reports have focused on why Mr. Schmidt was given a big raise ($1.7 million) to $6.2 million and how his termination (without cause) would cost $10.7 million. The current government signaled they were unaware of either the pay increases for the executives or the increased termination amount and the raises the Board of Directors gave themselves.

These issues were two of the items Hydro One’s Board of Directors had on the agenda for the Annual General Meeting (AGM) that required shareholder approval. As Andrew Willis of the Globe and Mail reported: “Shareholders voted 92 per cent in favour of Hydro One Ltd.’s executive compensation plan, which has faced intense scrutiny during the lead up to Ontario’s election campaign.” It appears that, of the shareholders who actually voted, only 8 per cent were against the increases.   But if the province had participated in the voting (they abstained) and used their 47 per cent shareholding, the motion could have been defeated with 55 per cent voting against it.

One wonders why they chose not to participate.

Christie Blatchford of the National Post was present at Hydro One’s AGM and took part in a short scrum after the AGM ended, with other reporters. The Chairman of the Board, David Denison, along with CEO. Mayo Schmidt represented Hydro One.  Blatchford’s article notes questioning from one aggressive reporter! Asked if he’d take a pay cut or resign, Schmidt said, “It isn’t about pay cuts.” The hellion reporter snapped, “Of course it is.” He then reminded the motley press that the company is committed to “building this high-performing champion,” that Hydro One has reduced costs by 31 per cent, and “turned the power back on for the desperate people.”

Now the only allusion Schmidt made to where those reduced costs came from at the AGM was reported by Andrew Willis who noted “management said the main drivers of earnings growth will come from consolidating local distribution companies in Ontario and cutting costs — the company got rid of 1,000 vehicles over the past year.”

While Schmidt (according to media coverage) was subdued and apolitical during the AGM, a couple of days later he lashed out as reported in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business in an article by Tim Kiladze. Mr. Kiladze reported that “Schmidt is warning that threats from politicians in Ontario’s election campaign are weighing on the business and will have consequences.” Later in the article reporter Kiladze noted: “Speaking to Hydro One’s latest quarterly earnings, he noted that profit was up by 33 per cent from the year prior, and that Hydro One has added 400 jobs while delivering $114 million in cost savings since its IPO. “Those are remarkable statistics for a company that’s in transition,” Schmidt is reported to have said.

Despite Mr. Schmidt’s claim of improving profits and generating cost savings, the market has moved Hydro’s One’s stock price in the opposite direction. It reached a new low of $18.93 and closed the week at $19.10.   It appears investors are not impressed with either the quarterly earnings jump or the reported “cost savings.”

Examining the first Quarter report tells some of the story.

As CEO Schmidt noted, profit was up by 33 per cent or $55 million above the first quarter of 2017. It appears almost all of the increase was related to rate approvals for the transmission part of the business which increased $54 million due to rate increases approved by the regulator — the Ontario Energy Board (OEB). Electricity transmitted in the quarter was up by only one tenth of one per cent!

Go further into the quarterly report to Note 10, the possible reason for investor concern is significant and relates to the OEB’s Decision and Order in respect to the “transition from the payments in lieu of tax regime under the Electricity Act (Ontario) to tax payments under the federal and provincial tax regime”.

The following comes from that note: “On November 9, 2017, the OEB issued a Decision and Order that calculated the portion of the tax savings that should be shared with ratepayers. The OEB’s calculation would result in an impairment of Hydro One Networks’ transmission deferred income tax regulatory asset of up to approximately $515 million. If the OEB were to apply the same calculation for sharing in Hydro One Networks’ 2018-2022 distribution rates, for which a decision is currently outstanding, it would result in an additional impairment of up to approximately $370 million related to Hydro One Networks’ distribution deferred income tax regulatory asset.”

The conclusion from the OEB’s decision is that they were simply doing their job and honouring their first listed mission statement which reads: “Strengthening the focus on demonstrable consumer value during a period of sector evolution.”

The decision is being challenged by Hydro One’s executives and (presumably) their Board of Directors who are upset the $885 million may not wind up in shareholders pockets. As a result, in October 2017 the Company filed a Motion to Review and Vary (Motion) the Decision and filed an appeal with the Divisional Court of Ontario (Appeal). On December 19, 2017, the OEB granted a hearing of the merits of the Motion which was held on February 12, 2018.

In both cases, the Company’s position is that the OEB made errors of fact and law in its determination of allocation of the tax savings between the shareholders and ratepayers. To put the $885 million in context; it exceeds the annual after-tax profit of Hydro One for a full year!  The results of the OEB hearing will determine whether Hydro One proceed with the appeal to the Divisional Court of Ontario.

Perhaps Hydro One’s Board of Directors and senior executives don’t comprehend they operate a monopoly that is regulated for the express purpose of ensuring their focus is “on demonstrable consumer value during a period of sector evolution.”

As ratepayers, we should hope the OEB continues to place an emphasis on “demonstrable consumer value.” Ordinary ratepayers do not enjoy the benefits Hydro One’s executive have awarded themselves.

Parker Gallant

May 22, 2018

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