Hawaiian Electric shares sink on wildfire lawsuit, dividend pause, ratings cut

(Reuters) -Hawaiian Electric shares on Friday plunged to their lowest level since 1984 as a lawsuit alleging negligence leading to Maui wildfires raised investor worries over the financial health of the utility that has paused dividend payout.

Its shares fell as much as 23.6% to $9.06 as S&P Global Ratings downgraded the company’s credit rating deeper into junk territory, citing its likely inconsistent access to capital markets.

The Maui county sued the Honolulu-based company, saying it acted negligently by failing to shut down power, leading to wildfires that destroyed the coastal town of Lahaina and killed more than 114 people.

“We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding,” the company told Reuters. It had previously said shutting off power was not part of its high-wind management protocol.

“We view the lawsuit as an attempt to shift blame responsibility rather than sticking to the earlier narrative that it was an unfortunate, weather-induced tragedy and standing by the utility,” Wells Fargo analyst Jonathan Reeder said.

S&P Global Ratings, meanwhile, initiated its second rating cut on the company and its units this month, to ‘B-‘ from ‘BB-‘. Moody’s and Fitch have also lowered Hawaiian Electric to junk status.

“A bankruptcy reorganization is still perhaps the most plausible path forward given what appears to be an inevitable liquidity crunch,” Reeder said.

The largest power supplier in the island state said it would invest $200 million that it withdrew from its credit account in highly liquid assets along with the $170 million drawn by parent Hawaiian Electric Industries to shore up its balance sheet.

Its shares have lost more than half of its market value since the Aug. 8 wildfire. The stock is trading 5.6 times its forward earnings estimate, well below its 2023 peak multiple of 18.4, according to Refinitiv data.

(Reporting by Medha Singh and Arunima Kumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)