CFOs React: AEP’s Holly Koeppel

The utility's need for ready cash trumps the cost of drawing down on its credit lines.

Back in September, before the current downturn had reached a crisis point, AEP, one of the nation’s biggest generators of electricity, began to draw down cash from its credit line. It was not that the company saw any particular need for the money, but rather, a need to sit “on a cushion of cash,” Holly Koeppel, the company’s finance chief, told CFO editors in an interview earlier this month.

Like many other companies, the utility was changing from the previous orthodoxy of keeping your cash balances lean and leveraging up your balance sheet as much as possible. Instead, AEP, once known as American Electric Power, drew down $2 billion in cash from a $3.9 billion revolving credit line that it held with a group of 27 banks. (None of the banks has more than a 10 percent stake in AEP’s total bank commitments.)

In September 2008 and October 2008, respectively the company borrowed $600 million and $1.4 billion under its credit lines to buttress its cash position during what it called, in its third quarter 10-Q, “this period of market disruptions.”

The reason the company drew down the money, says Koeppel, is that it had exhausted its ability to raise near-term cash in the commercial paper market. Observing the collapse of the commercial paper market in 2007, the company wanted to act to avert illiquidity this time around. As a utility with cash needs that oscillate with the seasons and weather conditions, AEP was especially aware of the need to keep electricity flowing.

The crisis has also sharpened Koeppel’s sensitivity to corporate risk. While she’s not exactly on a hair trigger these days, the corporation’s experience as a counterparty to Enron at the time of the latter company’s bankruptcy has made her aware of how quickly debtors can head south. Following is an edited version of some high points of the interview.

How has the crisis affected your ability to raise capital?

The first challenge that we faced, which I expect will be pretty persistent for the near term future, is short-term credit markets. We saw [ the commercial paper market] break down about 12 months back; based on that relatively recent experience, we anticipated that it would experience some dislocations and took proactive steps to draw on our lines of credit to cover the retirement, or funding, of that cp. I don’t expect that market to open to us in any meaningful way. Fortunately our bank lines were more than adequate to bridge us over and really position us to stay out of the market–even the long-term refinancing market–for the foreseeable future. We have very few maturities coming due in ’09 and in a very strong liquidity position.

We proactively drew on our lines by an amount that was adequate to cover not only the retirement of our commercial paper but also the financings that we have in queue lined up for next year. [About $120 million and $300 million, respectively, of the company's $16 billion of the company's long-term debt will mature in the rest of 2008 and 2009, respectively, AEP reported in its third-quarter 10-Q. "We intend to refinance these maturities," it said then.]

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