SAN FRANCISCO — PG&E Corp. said Thursday that it might have improperly kept several complex deals off its books, making the power company the latest industry giant to own up to an accounting slip-up following the Enron Corp. scandal.
The potential problems prompted San Francisco-based PG&E to postpone its scheduled fourth-quarter earnings announcement and raised the specter of the accounting debacle that destroyed Enron, once the nation’s largest energy trader.
PG&E warned it might revise its financial statements dating back to 1999, but stressed the changes won’t have a major impact on its earnings or its shareholders’ equity.
The company also sought to distance its off-the-book deals from the murky partnerships that ruined Enron. PG&E said details about all the deals had been outlined in its corporate annual report last year and a Securities Exchange and Commission filing made six months ago by one of its unregulated businesses, the National Energy Group.
PG&E’s assurances appeared to satisfy the stock market. The company’s shares fell 59 cents to close at $20 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.
The stock market is demanding more straightforward accounting from companies to minimize the chances of rude shocks like the one Enron delivered late last year when it acknowledged that it had overstated its past profits by $586 million.
The pressure has prompted companies to pore through their financial statements for potential trouble. “Every company wants to make sure they have all their ducks in a row before announcing earnings now,” said analyst Carol Coale of Prudential Securities.
With Enron’s collapse looming in the background, power companies are under the greatest scrutiny. Two other industry giants, Williams Cos. and Reliant Energy Inc., also have delayed their fourth-quarter earnings so they can re-evaluate the way they accounted for certain deals.
PG&E faces even more daunting issues than questions about its accounting practices. The company’s main source of revenue, Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric, remains stuck in a bankruptcy case initiated 10 months ago and state regulators are trying to block its plan for reorganization.
PG&E’s accounting headache revolves around the company’s approach to building power plants in Connecticut, California and Arizona, as well as the way it obtained some of its power-generating equipment.
As part of these deals, PG&E formed trusts with other unidentified partners and created “synthetic” leases that allowed the deals to remain off the company’s books.
For the deals to remain off PG&E’s balance sheet, the other partners have to maintain a 3 percent stake in the trusts, a condition that might have been breached because of “technical” issues, the company said.
PG&E accountants and the company’s outside auditor, Deloitte & Touche, raised red flags about the deals Wednesday night during a final review of the fourth-quarter financial statements, said PG&E spokesman Brian Hertzog.
If a more detailed review concludes the leases need to be reclassified, PG&E said it will change financial statements during the previous three years and record the deals on its balance sheet. The revisions might add an additional $1 billion in assets and liabilities to PG&E’s books.
The possible changes won’t erode PG&E’s profits because the deals are regarded as capital leases, an accounting item that doesn’t affect income.
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