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Investor favourite NiSource faces questions after Massachusetts explosions

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) - Before gas explosions in Massachusetts sent its shares reeling on Friday, utility NiSource Inc (NI.N) was considered a secure play and its top investor was loading up on shares as part of a push into what it called "the safest, most defensive sector in the S&P 500."

All that changed in the aftermath of Thursday's gas explosions across three suburbs north of Boston that left at least one person dead, injured at least a dozen more, and drove thousands from their homes. The cause of the blasts remains under investigation.

The area is served by the Columbia Gas of Massachusetts unit of NiSource, whose shares fell 11.7 percent to close at $24.79 on Friday.

In an afternoon news conference officials including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker criticized Columbia Gas for what they said was an inadequate response to the explosions. They cited issues including poor communications with local police and fire crews. Baker said he was using an emergency authority to put a different local utility, Eversource Energy (ES.N), in charge of the local response.

"The follow-through just wasn’t there," Baker said of Columbia Gas.

Asked about Baker's comments, NiSource spokesman Ken Stammen referred to statements from Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant, who spoke to reporters at a separate news conference after Baker's. Bryant said the utility is "sorry" and said that amid difficulties, "we advanced this as rapidly as it could possibly be advanced."

The share-price decline reflects concerns about potentially higher NiSource spending and penalties, said Morningstar analyst Charles Fishman. He expects regulators eventually will approve rates to cover more infrastructure spending at what is a minor piece of the sprawling Indiana-based utility holding company.

"This is certainly a tragedy. From an investment standpoint, for NiSource, this is a small part of their system," Fishman said.

Guggenheim Partners analyst Shar Pourreza said his current "neutral" rating on NiSource mainly reflects its high valuation, driven by a strong earnings and growth outlook. With a gain of 138 percent over the past five years through Thursday, NiSource had outperformed all other utilities in the S&P 500 (.SPLRCU), with that sector gaining just 46 percent in the period.

Managers of NiSource's top fund investor, the T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation Fund (PRWCX.O), wrote in a June 30 report they loaded up on utilities to reduce risk. "We believe utilities are the safest, most defensive sector in the S&P 500," wrote managers led by David Giroux.


(Reporting by Ross Kerber in Boston; Editing by Matthew Lewis)