Rural Utilities Service:

Risk Assessment for the Electric Loan Portfolio

T-AIMD-98-123: Published: Mar 30, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 1998.

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Linda M. Calbom
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Rural Utilities Service's (RUS) electric loan portfolio and the potential for future losses to the federal government from these loans, focusing on: (1) substantial write-offs of loans to rural electric cooperatives; (2) likely additional losses to the federal government from loans to financially stressed borrowers; and (3) the potential for future losses from viable loans that may become stressed in the future due to high production costs and competitive or regulatory pressures.

GAO noted that: (1) under Department of Justice authority, during fiscal year (FY) 1996 and through July 31, 1997, RUS wrote off about $1.5 billion of loans to rural electric cooperatives; (2) the most significant write-offs relate to two generation and transmission (G&T) loans; (3) it is probable that RUS will have additional loan write-offs and therefore that the federal government will incur losses in the short term from loans to borrowers that have been identified as financially stressed by RUS management; (4) at the time of GAO's review, RUS reports indicated that about $10.5 billion of the $22.5 billion in G&T debt was owed by 13 financially stressed G&T borrowers; (5) in addition to the financially stressed loans, RUS had loans outstanding to G&T borrowers that were considered viable by RUS but may become stressed in the future due to high costs and competitive or regulatory pressures; (6) GAO believes it is probable that the federal government will eventually incur losses on some of these G&T loans; (7) GAO also believes the future viability of these G&T borrowers will be determined based on their ability to be competitive in a deregulated market; (8) relatively high average production costs indicate that the majority of G&Ts may have difficulty competing in a deregulated market; (9) as with the financially stressed borrowers, some of the G&T borrowers considered viable by RUS at the time of GAO's work had high debt costs because of investments in uneconomical plants; (10) in the short term, G&Ts will likely be shielded from competition because of the all-requirements wholesale power contracts between the G&T and their member distribution cooperatives; (11) wholesale rates under these contracts are set by a G&T's board of directors with approval from RUS; (12) in states whose commissions regulate cooperatives, the cooperative must file a request with the commission for a rate increase or decrease; (13) these commissions may deny a request for a rate increase if they believe such an increase will have a negative impact on the region; (14) denials of requested rate increases by state commissions culminated in several G&Ts filing bankruptcy; (15) according to RUS officials, some commissions have denied a rate increase to cover the cost of projects that the commission had previously approved for construction; and (16) therefore, G&Ts with high costs may be likely candidates to default on their RUS loans, even without direct competitive pressures.

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