KC firm's stock plunges on news of federal inquiry

Sunday, June 16, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Aquila Inc.'s stock reached a low not seen since the early 1980s on news of a federal inquiry into the company's energy trades and the possibility of a dividend cut.

The stock closed Friday at $10.50 per share, down $1.75. Earlier in the day the stock was down to $9.80 a share before recovering.

The stock has lost 69 percent of its value over the last year.

Federal securities regulators have asked Aquila for information on energy transfers, dubbed "round-trip trades," that involve the buying electricity from other energy companies at a set price, then selling it back to them at the same price.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is seeking similar information from other energy trading firms, including Duke Energy Corp. and El Paso Corp. Such trades would artificially inflate revenues and expenses.

Aquila, which has already replied to a similar request from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, reiterated Friday that it had not done round-trip trades.

"We're taking this seriously," said Mary Amundsen, a spokeswoman for Aquila. "But we've already provided similar information to FERC."

Aquila is also reviewing its $1.20 annual dividend. The company said earlier this week that it might need to cut the payout to help conserve cash to retain or improve its credit rating. The dividend is especially important to many utility investors who invest in the companies for the income.

Aquila, formerly UtiliCorp United, is one of several energy traders to run into trouble since Enron Corp., the industry's pioneer, went bankrupt amid a scandal over alleged improper accounting.

Aquila's investment grade rating is under review by Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp. Aquila has said its primary focus for the rest of the year is improving its credit rating.

Moody's currently rates Aquila debt one step above junk status. A credit rating downgrade would increase financing costs and trigger covenants that would require repayment of debt if a rating sank to junk.

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