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California utilities face credit risks from wildfires: Fitch

Fire in Southern California in September 2017

California’s public utilities could face multibillion-dollar liabilities related to the state’s wildfires and thus have the greatest exposure to downside credit risks from the events, according to research from Fitch Ratings Inc. released Wednesday.

The insurance industry, meanwhile, should not be significantly impacted, Fitch said, although any wider economic slowdown could touch the insurance and reinsurance sectors.

“Insurance will partially cover losses with operational disruptions likely temporary and not prolonged enough to negatively affect individual credit profiles,” Fitch said. “Furthermore, insurance companies with exposure to the California wildfires are generally the larger, more capitalized national carriers that, as a group, have high insurer financial strength ratings.”

The utilities sector, however, may have significant downside.

“Downside credit risks from the California wildfires are currently most pronounced for investor-owned utilities (IOU), which could face large liabilities if their equipment is found to have ignited the fires,” Fitch said

One company, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., may have as much as $15 billion in exposure to the 2017 wildfires, “with large incremental liability possible if PG&E equipment is found to have been involved in ignition of the 2017 Tubbs and 2018 Camp wildfires,” Fitch said in a statement released with the research note.

The Tubbs Fire was one of many that torched California’s Napa Valley last year.

PG&E and another company, Southern California Edison Co., have been downgraded this year “due to potential outsized liabilities from wildfires,” Fitch said, noting that PG&E stock has lost more than half its value.

A slowing economy in the fires’ wake could touch insurance reinsurance and other sectors.

“Negative credit implications could emerge for the (re)insurance industry and the U.S. public finance sector, given the potential for a state-wide economic slowdown, damaged infrastructure and associated environmental issues,” Fitch said.

Fitch pegged insured losses from the 2017 fires at $11.5 billion and added that 2018 fires had caused $845 million of direct-insured losses before this latest round of wildfires.






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