Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N) said on Friday it would pay US$9 billion to pick up the parent of Texas power transmission company Oncor Electric Delivery Co from bankruptcy, stepping up its pursuit of steady returns in utilities.
If the all-cash deal is approved by a bankruptcy judge and Texas regulators, it will hand Berkshire ownership of one of the largest U.S. electricity transmission companies. Texas regulators shot down two previous deals to sell Oncor to other companies.
The deal also highlights the prominence of Greg Abel, 55, Berkshire Hathaway Energy's chief executive. Investors consider him a top candidate to succeed Buffett, 86, at the Omaha, Nebraska-based parent company's helm.
Buffett and Abel did not respond to requests for interviews.
Dallas-based Oncor delivers power to more than 3.4 million homes and business through roughly 122,000 miles (196,000 km) of transmission and distribution lines. It is 80 percent owned by Energy Future Holdings, which Berkshire has now agreed to acquire.
Oncor posted US$431 million of profit in 2016, and similar sums in the prior three years.
Buffett values such consistency, telling Berkshire shareholders in February that utilities generate "recession-resistant" earnings because they offer an "essential service" that generates "remarkably steady" demand.
Abel's unit has in recent years also deepened its commitment to renewable energy, including wind, entitling it to tax credits that help bolster Berkshire's balance sheet.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy typically generates nearly 10 percent of its parent's profit, contributing US$2.29 billion to an overall US$24.07 billion in 2016.
Oncor's takeover requires approval by Texas' Public Utility Commission (PUCT), which in 2016 and 2017 scuttled bids by NextEra Energy Inc (NEE.N) and privately held Hunt Consolidated Inc.
Regulators had asked for Oncor to be ringfenced so that it does not assume new debt from its acquirer and does not pay out too much cash as dividends.
"We anticipate that Berkshire might be more willing to leave the ringfence in place and allow restriction on dividends, which was a pre-condition that NextEra was unwilling to accept. This could make approval of Berkshire's bid by the PUCT a little less cumbersome," Cowen & Co analysts said in a note.
The PUCT is required by law to rule on Berkshire's bid within six months of receiving an application. A spokesman declined to comment on Berkshire's prospects.
Berkshire expects Friday's purchase to close in the fourth quarter, pending approvals by state and federal regulators and the judge overseeing Energy Future's bankruptcy proceedings.
It said the transaction implies an equity value of about US$11.25 billion for Oncor. Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm representing Energy Future, said the transaction's enterprise value was about $18.1 billion.
UNDOING AN 'UNFORCED ERROR'
Energy Future was created from the US$45 billion buyout in 2007 of the former TXU Corp by KKR & Co, TPG Capital Management and Goldman Sachs Group Inc's (GS.N) private equity arm.
The buyout was a bet that natural gas prices would rise, allowing for higher electricity prices. Natural gas prices plunged instead, and Energy Future went bankrupt in 2014.
Buffett previously made a foray into the company by buying US$2 billion of high-yield bonds in 2007.
But he threw in the towel six years later, taking an US$873 million pre-tax loss. He has called that investment "a major unforced error."
Buffett entered the energy sector in 2000 when he led a group to buy the Des Moines, Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co, later renamed Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
He has since expanded in the central and western United States, such as with the Oregon-based PacifiCorp and Nevada-based NV Energy utilities.
Berkshire has also forayed outside the country, including with the AltaLink electricity transmission company in Alberta, Canada and Northern Powergrid in Newcastle upon Tyne in England.
Such bets enabled Buffett to diversify Berkshire away from its longstanding focus on insurance and stock-picking.
Berkshire now owns more than 90 businesses including the BNSF railroad, Geico car insurance, Lubrizol chemicals and Dairy Queen ice cream.
Assuming the Oncor transaction closes, Oncor CEO Bob Shapard would become executive chairman and be replaced by general counsel Allen Nye, under a previously announced plan.