"We're in a financial hurricane," says Paul Bowers, CFO of the $15.4 billion Atlanta-based Southern Company, "but we know a thing or two about outdoor hurricanes. It's our job to restore services and get the lights back on. We're good at it. Now we're applying some of that logic and culture to riding out a financial hurricane."

To survive this tempest, Bowers is keeping a weather eye on three contributing factors. One is consumer spending, as it relates to power usage. While electricity might seem one of the last places where consumers would cut back, Southern Company is keeping a close eye on its customers these days. "When we had $4-a-gallon gasoline, people adjusted their lifestyles and reassessed their use of energy," he says. And that affected household utilities. "We found that per-customer usage was down 3.1% in the third quarter. People are finding ways to use our product more efficiently," he reports, "so we're watching our customer base closely and tracking how consumers are adjusting." That negative number reflects a growing supply of unsold or abandoned homes as a result of the mortgage crisis, he adds. Another front that has Bowers' attention is the corporate debt market. "We're very capital intensive," he says. "We need large amounts of capital." For Southern Company, raising capital means selling bonds.

"The issue for us has not been access but cost," he explains. "We're fortunate to have high credit ratings (A1/P1 short-term; A/A2 long-term), but we stayed out of the market for a while because rates were so volatile and generally high. Recently, we've come back in and issued $1 billion of new debt, mostly five-year notes at around 6%." If he could get one useful peek into a crystal ball to see what the financial environment would look like in 2010, it would be a glance at what investment-grade bonds are yielding.

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