History of the Valuation Question.

For almost fifty years the Court wandered through a maze of conflicting formulas and factors for valuing public service corporation property, including “fair value,”177 “reproduction cost,”178 “prudent investment,”179 “depreciation,”180 “going concern value and good will,”181 “salvage value,”182 and “past losses and gains,”183 only to emerge from this maze in 1944 at a point not very far removed from Munn v. Illinois and its deference to rate-making authorities.184 By holding in FPC v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co.185 that “[t]he Constitution does not bind rate-making bodies to the service of any single formula or combination of formulas,” and in FPC v. Hope Natural Gas Co.186 that “it is the result reached not the method employed which is controlling, . . . [that] [i]t is not the theory but the impact of the rate order which counts, [and that] [i]f the total effect of the rate order cannot be said to be unjust and unreasonable, judicial inquiry under the Act is at an end,” the Court, in effect, abdicated from the position assumed in the Ben Avon case.187 Without surrendering the judicial power to declare rates unconstitutional on the basis of a substantive deprivation of due process,188 the Court announced that it would not overturn a result it deemed to be just simply because “the method employed [by a commission] to reach that result may contain infirmities. . . . [A] Commission’s order does not become suspect by reason of the fact that it is challenged. It is the product of expert judgment which carries a presumption of validity. And he who would upset the rate order . . . carries the heavy burden of making a convincing showing that it is invalid because it is unjust and unreasonable in its consequences.”189

In dispensing with the necessity of observing the old formulas for rate computation, the Court did not articulate any substitute guidance for ascertaining whether a so-called end result is unreasonable. It did intimate that rate-making “involves a balancing of the investor and consumer interests,” which does not, however, “ ‘insure that the business shall produce net revenues.’ . . . From the investor or company point of view it is important that there be enough revenue not only for operating expenses but also for the capital costs of the business. These include service on the debt and dividends on the stock. . . . By that standard the return to the equity owner should be commensurate with returns on investments in other enterprises having corresponding risks. That return, moreover, should be sufficient to assure confidence in the financial integrity of the enterprise, so as to maintain its credit and to attract capital.”190


Smyth v. Ames, 169 U.S. 466, 546–47 (1898) (“fair value” necessitated consideration of original cost of construction, permanent improvements, amount and market value of bonds and stock, replacement cost, probable earning capacity, and operating expenses). back
Various valuation cases emphasized reproduction costs, i.e., the present as compared with the original cost of construction. See, e.g., San Diego Land Co. v. National City, 174 U.S. 739, 757 (1899); San Diego Land & Town Co. v. Jasper, 189 U.S. 439, 443 (1903). back
Missouri ex rel. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co. v. Public Serv. Comm’n, 262 U.S. 276, 291–92, 302, 306–07 (1923) (Brandeis, J., concurring) (cost includes both operating expenses and capital charges, i.e., interest for the use of capital, allowance for the risk incurred, funds to attract capital). This method would require “adoption of the amount prudently invested as the rate base and the amount of the capital charge as the measure of the rate of return.” As a method of valuation, the prudent investment theory was not accorded any acceptance until the Depression of the 1930s. The sharp decline in prices that occurred during this period doubtless contributed to the loss of affection for reproduction costs. In Los Angeles Gas Co. v. Railroad Comm’n, 289 U.S. 287 (1933) and Railroad Comm’n v. Pacific Gas Co., 302 U.S. 388, 399, 405 (1938), the Court upheld respectively a valuation from which reproduction costs had been excluded and another in which historical cost served as the rate base. back
Knoxville v. Water Co., 212 U.S. 1, 9–10 (1909) (considering depreciation as part of cost). Notwithstanding its early recognition as an allowable item of deduction in determining value, depreciation continued to be the subject of controversy arising out of the difficulty of ascertaining it and of computing annual allowances to cover the same. Indicative of such controversy was the disagreement as to whether annual allowances shall be in such amount as will permit the replacement of equipment at current costs, i.e., present value, or at original cost. In the FPC v. Hope Natural Gas Co. case, 320 U.S. 591, 606 (1944), the Court reversed United Railways v. West, 280 U.S. 234, 253–254 (1930), insofar as that holding rejected original cost as the basis of annual depreciation allowances. back
Des Moines Gas Co. v. Des Moines, 238 U.S. 153, 165 (1915) (finding “going concern value” in an assembled and established plant, doing business and earning money, over one not thus advanced). Franchise value and good will, on the other hand, have been consistently excluded from valuation; the latter presumably because a utility invariably enjoys a monopoly and consumers have no choice in the matter of patronizing it. The latter proposition has been developed in the following cases: Willcox v. Consolidated Gas Co., 212 U.S. 19 (1909); Des Moines Gas Co. v. Des Moines, 238 U.S. 153, 163–64 (1915); Galveston Elec. Co. v. Galveston, 258 U.S. 388 (1922); Los Angeles Gas Co. v. Railroad Comm’n, 289 U.S. 287, 313 (1933). back
Market Street Ry. v. Railroad Comm’n, 324 U.S. 548, 562, 564 (1945) (where a street-surface railroad had lost all value except for scrap or salvage it was permissible for a commission to consider the price at which the utility offered to sell its property to a citizen); Denver v. Denver Union Water Co., 246 U.S. 178 (1918) (where water company franchise has expired, but where there is no other source of supply, its plant should be valued as actually in use rather than at what the property would bring for some other use in case the city should build its own plant). back
FPC v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co., 315 U.S. 575, 590 (1942) (“The Constitution [does not] require that the losses of . . . [a] business in one year shall be restored from future earnings by the device of capitalizing the losses and adding them to the rate base on which a fair return and depreciation allowance is to be earned”). Nor can past losses be used to enhance the value of the property to support a claim that rates for the future are confiscatory. Galveston Elec. Co. v. Galveston, 258 U.S. 388 (1922), any more than profits of the past can be used to sustain confiscatory rates for the future Newton v. Consolidated Gas Co., 258 U.S. 165, 175 (1922); Board of Comm’rs v. New York Tel. Co., 271 U.S. 23, 31–32 (1926). back
94 U.S. 113 (1877). back
315 U.S. 575, 586 (1942). back
320 U.S. 591, 602 (1944). Although this and the previously cited decision arose out of controversies involving the National Gas Act of 1938, the principles laid down therein are believed to be applicable to the review of rate orders of state commissions, except insofar as the latter operate in obedience to laws containing unique standards or procedures. back
Ohio Valley Water Co. v. Ben Avon Borough, 253 U.S. 287 (1920). back
In FPC v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co., 315 U.S. 575, 599 (1942), Justices Black, Douglas, and Murphy, in a concurring opinion, proposed to travel the road all the way back to Munn v. Illinois, and deprive courts of the power to void rates simply because they deem the latter to be unreasonable. In a concurring opinion, in Driscoll v. Edison Co., 307 U.S. 104, 122 (1939), Justice Frankfurter temporarily adopted a similar position; he declared that “[t]he only relevant function of law [in rate controversies] . . . is to secure observance of those procedural safeguards in the exercise of legislative powers which are the historic foundations of due process.” However, in his dissent in FPC v. Hope Natural Gas Co., 320 U.S. 591, 625 (1944), he disassociated himself from this proposal, and asserted that “it was decided more than fifty years ago that the final say under the Constitution lies with the judiciary and not the legislature. Chicago, M. & St. P. Ry. Co. v. Minnesota, 134 U.S. 418 [1890].” back
FPC v. Hope Natural Gas Co., 320 U.S. 591, 602 (1944). See also Wisconsin v. FPC, 373 U.S. 294, 299, 317, 326 (1963), in which the Court tentatively approved an “area rate approach,” that is “the determination of fair prices for gas, based on reasonable financial requirements of the industry, for . . . the various producing areas of the country,” and with rates being established on an area basis rather than on an individual company basis. Four dissenters, Justices Clark, Black, Brennan, and Chief Justice Warren, labeled area pricing a “wild goose chase,” and stated that the Commission had acted in an arbitrary and unreasonable manner entirely outside traditional concepts of administrative due process. Area rates were approved in Permian Basin Area Rate Cases, 390 U.S. 747 (1968). The Court reaffirmed Hope Natural Gas’s emphasis on the bottom line: “The Constitution within broad limits leaves the States free to decide what ratesetting methodology best meets their needs in balancing the interests of the utility and the public.” Duquesne Light Co. v. Barasch, 488 U.S. 299, 316 (1989) (rejecting takings challenge to Pennsylvania rule preventing utilities from amortizing costs of canceled nuclear plants). back
FPC v. Hope Natural Gas Co., 320 U.S. 591, 603 (1944) (citing Chicago & Grand Trunk Ry. v. Wellman, 143 U.S. 339, 345–46 (1892); and Missouri ex rel. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co. v. Public Serv. Comm’n, 262 U.S. 276, 291 (1923)). back