- Alphabet soup obscures power price facts
- Regulated returns guarantee power prices
- In a spin over soaring power prices
POWER company bosses and state governments, quietly drawing annual dividends from their utilities, have done well from rising electricity prices in recent years. But the other big winners have been foreign multinationals.
A BusinessDay investigation into executive remuneration found that frontline pay at the likes of foreign-owned SP AusNet and Spark Infrastructure has been modest when compared with the dazzling salaries at energy retailers AGL and Origin Energy.
In Victoria, where the electricity sector has been privatised, it is foreign multinationals that have been the big beneficiaries via a slew of complex management fees which are paid back to related companies in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Spark Infrastructure and SP AusNet have been engineered to pay management fees to external managers, although Spark paid its Hong Kong parent, CKI, $51.5 million earlier this year to buy back its own management and clean up what had been a quintuple-stapled security structure.
In the case of transmission and distribution group SP AusNet, its parent, Singapore Power, was paid $90 million last year in assorted fees and related party payments. But the devil in the financial detail is something of a revelation.
The number one culprit for rising electricity prices – accounting for 40 per cent of the total increase – has been spending on transmission and distribution. As the network providers earn a ”regulated return” on their asset bases, there has been an incentive for them to overspend, or ”gold-plate” their networks.
Lurking in the catacombs of SP AusNet’s public documents are two telling disclosures. One, Singapore Power is entitled to 1 per cent of SP AusNet’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation). In this, it ranks ahead of SP’s other unit holders.
Two, the parent company is entitled to 1 per cent of the increase in the regulated asset base. A foreign company, in other words, has provided an incentive for Victoria’s transmission provider to gold-plate its network – the more it spends the more it earns, and the more the government of Singapore benefits because it owns Singapore Power.
This is an outcome New South Wales must seek to avoid as the government prepares to privatise its distributors and its transmission provider TransGrid if it wins the next election.
SP has paid Singapore Power at least $12 million every year since 2007. In 2012, the fee based on the increase in SP’s ”regulated asset base” was $6.7 million, struck on capital expenditure of $710 million.
The swelling asset base came even as the company drew legal fire over the maintenance of one of its remote power lines, allegedly a failure that may have contributed to the Black Saturday bushfires.
Although it often follows that what is bad for customers – higher prices – is good for security holders, as far as the externally managed power companies go, this is hardly the case.
It is difficult to see how unit holders in SP AusNet gain from delivering Singapore Power a claim over their EBITDA when the parent already holds the majority stake and benefits through distributions anyway.
Their interests are not aligned, and they stand at odds with the interests of customers too, in the light of the incentive for gold-plating.
Then there are the other side deals. There is a $1 million fee each year just for SP to use Singapore Power’s logo. There was $49 million in IT services fees and other payments relating to property, plant and equipment, and simply ”other”, which went to related entities of the parent.
The breakdown last year was a rise of 9.6 per cent in base fees to $27.5 million, $13.5 million in performance fees (up 12.3 per cent) and $49 million in related-party transactions (a rise of 23 per cent).
It is not only customers who are getting stung. The growth in fees to the parent outstripped the value delivered to unit holders. Net profit was virtually static at $255 million, operating cash flow down 9 per cent at $430.5 million, return on assets was 3 per cent and return on equity 8.8 per cent.
The one bright spot was the unit price, which rallied 22 per cent to $1.08 during the year, albeit from a low level associated with legal exposure to the Black Saturday bushfires.
While SP unit holders may be irked at having to stump up the costs that their external manager has incurred in providing, ironically, their very own SP management, Spark has improved its investors’ lot thanks to this year’s restructure. But it remains a stew of related-party transactions whose greatest beneficiaries are the foreign parents.
Both Spark and SP have been pursued by the Tax Office for aggressive tax structures.