Japan may nationalize Asia's largest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), as it struggles with the financial costs of the country's worst nuclear disaster, a move that would please bondholders but hurt shareholders who would likely lose out.
Imposing state management is one option that Japan is mulling, National Strategy Minister Koichiro Gemba said yesterday, as the costs of compensating businesses and households affected by leaking radiation and the expense of repairing crippled nuclear reactors looked set to soar.
TEPCO's ability to pay has been hobbled by a fall in generation capacity that is causing rolling blackouts that are expected to last for weeks if not months.
By gaining a de facto government guarantee on its ?7.5 trillion (US$91.8 billion) in debt, bondholders would feel more confident that TEPCO can repay its loans, analysts said.
"If the government nationalizes TEPCO, I don't see any significant immediate impact on lenders and bondholders. Rather, I think the event could be positive for TEPCO's credit status," said Tetsuya Yamamoto, a senior analyst at Moody's Investors in Japan.
TEPCO's future has been tenuous since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, causing it to leak radiation. Its shares have fallen 70 percent and the cost of insuring its debt against default has risen 10-fold.
"Naturally it is possible that there will be various debates about the state of Tokyo Electric," Gemba was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying when asked about the possibility of nationalization.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported earlier that some members of the government had proposed a plan for the state to take a majority stake in TEPCO and help it pay for damages stemming from the nuclear accident.
One government source said one plan being floated was to spin off TEPCO's nuclear business into a separate company and nationalize that.
"The possibility is small that TEPCO continues on in its current state," said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.