Rising Oil Output Is Different This Time

Although we’re used to reading about growth in U.S. shale production, recent figures from the Energy Information Administration are still striking. Crude oil output from the Permian in west Texas is set to reach 3 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) in March, up by more than 70K from February. Output is growing at an increasing rate. Natural gas output is also growing – Appalachia (how the EIA refers to the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia) is expected to produce around 27 Billion Cubic feet per Day (BCF/D) in March. The Permian represents close to a third of all U.S. crude output, and the Marcellus just over a third of natural gas.

In December, the EIA forecast Permian growth of 515K in daily output over 18 months from June 2017 to the end of this year, so the March 2018 increase is almost three months’ worth. The International Energy Agency is similarly optimistic, predicting that the U.S. will be the world’s largest oil producer by 2019. This seems like good news if you’re American and especially if you’re employed or invested in the energy sector. But the cloud on the horizon is whether this presages a repeat of the 2014-16 oil price collapse that was caused by surprisingly fast U.S. output. The WSJ noted that U.S. crude output looks set to outpace global demand in 2018, rekindling unpleasant memories. One observer tweeted “US shale firms remove pistol, aim at own foot, and fire.” However, crude prices barely dipped on the news.

U.S. oil and gas producers promise greater financial discipline following vocal investor feedback. Achieving an acceptable return on capital is now more fashionable than growing production. Chevron, Anadarko and ConocoPhilips have all recently announced dividend hikes, thoughtfully providing investors with a little Valentine’s Day love.

The bullish case for energy infrastructure rests on sustainable production growth, so although pipeline owners don’t drill for crude oil the financial health of their customers is important. Although U.S. output growth may exceed net new demand, existing oil fields experience aggregate global depletion of 3-4MMB/D, so new supply needs to cover this as well. In spite of the Shale Revolution, there’s still a need for other new sources of supply. If U.S. producers are sincere about their financial discipline, this should lead to more sustainable growth in output and good business for energy infrastructure.

Why Risk Parity Could Boost Energy Stocks

Risk Parity is a portfolio construction technique that seeks to allocate capital so as to maintain similar levels of risk from each asset. Some commentators are blaming it for the recent market turmoil, since superficially its practitioners are expected to reduce risk when it rises. That can often mean selling stocks. AQR is among the asset managers who employ this approach. In 2010 they published a paper explaining the theory, noting that traditional portfolios typically derive a larger proportion of their risk from equities than is implied by simply looking at percentage allocations.

A 60:40 stocks/bonds portfolio will incur more than 60% of its risk from stocks, because they move more than bonds. Risk Parity seeks to compensate for this, and the paper showed improved returns over a passive 60:40 approach. The paper goes on to describe a portfolio with less equity exposure than a traditional 60:40 portfolio and correspondingly less risk. Because it has a higher Sharpe Ratio (i.e. better risk/return) but lower return, leverage is then employed to raise the risk to the same as 60:40, at which point the return should be higher.

Since allocations under a Risk Parity regime target a given level of risk, changes in risk estimates will lead to a shift in allocations, and may also require changes to leverage. One popular measure of risk is volatility. For simplicity, we’ve defined it as the average percentage daily move over the prior ten days. Although Risk Parity is typically applied to asset classes, the concept can also be applied to sectors within an asset class. A strategy of achieving Risk Parity among asset classes can also be designed to achieve Risk Parity across sectors within an asset class.

In response to criticism that funds employing Risk Parity are behind the recent sharp moves, some managers of such funds have responded that such shifts are slow – their models are designed to recalibrate over longer periods than just a few days. It’s impossible to know the extent to which the critics are right — on Friday JPMorgan estimated that most of the “severe” unwind was over. However, we’ve noticed another shift, which is that risk in the energy sector is falling relative to the S&P500. This is partly due to correlations increasing, as they do during market dislocations. Sector differentiation becomes less important than overall market exposure, and sectors move up and down together. For example, the S&P Low Volatility Index is down 6.5% for the month, almost as much as the S&P500 itself (down 7.2%), even though Low Vol should be, well, less volatile.

Nonetheless, Risk Parity strategies that are deployed at the sector level could eventually increase energy exposure at the expense of other sectors whose relative volatility against the S&P500 has increased.

It can seem an arcane topic. But put simply, in a time of heightened volatility, the Energy sector is gyrating with the rest of the market whereas it was previously moving sometimes twice as much. The first chart compares XLE with SPY, where although average daily moves have increased in both cases, SPY moves have jumped by 150% while XLE moves have “only” doubled.

Many reliable trends have abruptly shifted, including persistent low volatility. The spectacular collapse of the Credit Suisse note (XIV) following the spike in volatility was extraordinary. Why would people hold a product that seems destined to eventually blow up?

The difference in volatility is more dramatic when comparing Energy Infrastructure (defined here by the American Energy Independence Index) with the S&P500. Their average daily moves are roughly the same. Until recently, energy infrastructure (including MLPs) was moving twice as much as the broader market. Domestic, midstream assets that support U.S. energy independence have experienced a comparatively modest increase in volatility compared to the overall market. Daily moves in the S&P500 and energy infrastructure are converging. At a time of increased uncertainty, if investors begin to value the more reliable cashflows these companies generate, further buying of the sector will follow.

The American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) finished the week -4.2%, outperforming the S&P500 which was -5.2%.

The Positives Behind Exxon Mobil’s Earnings

The sharp drop in equities since Friday is notable for missing any obvious catalyst. Interest rates have been headed higher, but they’re far too low to offer value and the Equity Risk Premium continues to strongly favor stocks over bonds. A sharp move higher in interest rates could shift relative valuations away from bonds, but we’d need to see rates 1-2% above where they are today.

Earnings have generally been good, but Exxon Mobil (XOM) disappointed with their report on Friday morning and duly dropped 10% over the following two trading sessions. They missed expectations across each segment. They have failed to make money in U.S. oil and gas production for over two years, and their refining margins were also squeezed.

However, XOM’s travails shouldn’t tarnish the outlook for energy infrastructure. First, they announced plans to invest $50BN in the U.S. over the next five years. CEO Darren Woods singled out the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico as an important target for some of this capital investment. This is exactly what energy infrastructure investors should be excited about. It’s evidence that the world’s biggest energy companies recognize the value in the Shale Revolution. Unconventional “tight” oil and gas formations offer rapid payback for a small initial investment. Capital invested is often returned within two years, allowing price risk to be hedged in the futures market. In Why Shale Upends Conventional Thinking , we noted last year that XOM’s CEO expected a third of their capex to be devoted to such opportunities. In response to a question on their recent earnings call, VP Jeff Woodbury replied, “…While we continue to invest across all segments, this increase compared to 2017 is primarily driven by higher investment in short-cycle Upstream opportunities, notably U.S. unconventional activity and conventional work programs, both of which yield attractive returns at $40 per barrel.” Woodbury continued, “As I indicated before when we were talking about the five-year projection of $50 billion, that is a very attractive investment. We’ve got – at a low price forecast we’ve got returns in excess of 10% with a $40 per barrel…”

Other multinational energy companies reported good earnings, including Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and BP.

In addition to positive fundamental developments such as XOM’s future investments focused in the U.S., energy infrastructure was completely bypassed by last year’s strong equity rally. Few investors in this sector can be guilty of irrational exuberance, and there’s unlikely to be many panic sellers. We continue to see investors allocating new money, including yesterday in spite of the sharp drop in the market. This reflects the value that investors increasingly see in the sector. Energy infrastructure companies are valued at a 9% Free Cash Flow yield based on 2018 earnings, and 10% based on 2019.

By contrast, the S&P 500 Energy Corporate Bond Index yields only 3.8%. The truly overvalued sector is the bond market, especially long term government and high grade bonds whose yields remain too low to provide a reasonable return and show overvaluation compared with stocks (see Down’s A Long Way for Bonds). Fixed income investors should consider switching into energy infrastructure equities.

Down’s A Long Way for Bonds

In my 2013 book Bonds Are Not Forever; The Crisis Facing Fixed Income Investors, I forecast that interest rates would stay lower for longer than many people thought. The 2008 Financial Crisis was caused in part by excessive levels of debt. Interest rates below inflation are a time-tested way to gradually lessen the burden of a country’s unmanageable obligations. The book’s forecast was right, and more importantly the low rate strategy has succeeded. Household debt service costs have fallen as a proportion of income. U.S. GDP is growing solidly at 2.5% and possibly faster, and at 4.1% the Unemployment rate has fallen to levels that were previously associated with rising inflation. We are enjoying synchronized global growth. In short, regarding Low Rates: Job Done.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been unwinding its policy of extreme accommodation at a measured pace. Short term interest rates have been lifted from 0% to 1.4%. Bond yields have also been rising, with the Federal Reserve having announced last year the end of their bond buying program. Their balance sheet is close to $4.5TN, and although they’ll continue to reinvest interest income it will eventually start shrinking as their holdings mature.

Lastly, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was stimulative. Falling household debt service, synchronized global growth, no more Fed buying of bonds and tax stimulus are not likely to be supportive for bond prices.

It’s true that in recent years many forecasters have mistakenly expected rates to rise faster than they have. Although the FOMC is not known for frivolity, even they must have chuckled in embarrassment at their own forecasting errors. For several years now, the FOMC has issued forecasts for the Fed Funds rate (i.e. the interest rate they control directly) only to consistently undershoot. They correctly value achieving the right policy rate more than saving their blushes as forecasters.

The challenge for bond investors, as they contemplate the declining value of their holdings, is to identify their fair value. Using ten year treasury yields as a benchmark, what is its neutral level?

The news is not good. As we noted recently (see Rising Rates and MLPs: Not What You Think), the real return (i.e. the return above inflation) on ten year treasuries going back to 1927 is 1.9%. This means that today’s investors should require at least 4% (approximately, inflation plus the historic real return). A 4% yield would deliver the average real return assuming inflation averages 2% over the next decade. Although yields are rising, the current 2.8% ten year yield is inadequate on this measure.

Synchronized global growth and fiscal stimulus are both heading in the wrong direction for a bond investor. Although the FOMC is forecasting 2.5% U.S. GDP growth this year and 2.1% next, they maintain that the long run trend is only 1.8%. This is why they’re projecting higher short term rates over the next couple of years, as well as Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation (their preferred measure) creeping up from 1.5% last year to 2% next year. In a sign that a tightening labor market is stoking wage inflation, Friday’s Employment report included a 2.9% annual increase in hourly earnings, the biggest jump since 2009.

A few weeks ago we revisited the Equity Risk Premium (ERP), which shows that stocks are cheap, relative to bonds. The corollary is that bonds are expensive relative to stocks. Yields need to rise by around 2% to return the ERP back to its 50+ year average. Historical comparisons with real returns and relative valuation to equities both argue that today’s bond market is a poor investment. Although this has been the case for several years, now the fiscal and economic stars are aligned against fixed income. It means that, if yields move up through 3%, taking the prices of many other bond sectors lower, investors considering where valuation support might lie will find little of substance in their favor.

We’re not forecasting that yields will move sharply higher — but we are noting there’s nothing fundamentally attractive about today’s levels. Bear in mind also that few FOMC members can be regarded as inflation “hawks” (does anybody even remember the term?). They’ve been dovish, correctly, for years. If inflation does surprise to the upside, bond investors may need some visible reassurance from new FOMC Chair Jerome Powell that he possesses “inflation-fighting credentials”. Earning such credibility would require raising short term rates even higher.

In September, ten year yields were close to 2% before beginning their current ascent. The last time we saw a 2% increase in yields (i.e. what it would take to return to 4%, approaching long term fair value) was in 1999, when technology stocks were leading us into the dot.com boom and subsequent bust. A generation of market participants has not experienced a real fixed income bear market. As a retired bond trader friend of mine says, when you add all these factors up, for bond prices “Down’s a Long Way”.

Unlike fixed income, energy infrastructure does offer solid valuation support. Moreover, the correlation with bond yields is historically low and likely to remain that way. Few MLP investors expect stable, boring returns anymore and rising GDP growth is good for energy demand. Selling bonds that are substantially above fair value and switching into undervalued energy infrastructure aligns with the macro forces currently at work.

The American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) finished the week -6.5%. Since the November 29th low in the sector, the AEITR has rebounded 7.6%.

ETFs and Behavioral Finance

There are over three million stock indices in the world, more than 70 times as many as actual stocks. Before learning this startling fact in the FT the other day, I might have guessed wildly at 1% of this figure, thinking it way too high.

Although the growth in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) is not solely responsible for this index explosion, it’s certainly helped. The move away from active management has spurred the creation of indices into which passive funds can invest. At SL Advisors we recently made our own modest contribution to this thee million number by launching the investable American Energy Independence Index, in partnership with S&P Dow Jones Indices. Launching an index involves substantial work, but unlike an IPO there’s no 6% underwriting fee. Starting an index is cheaper than floating a stock.

The Shale Revolution has transformed America’s term of trade in energy, and created substantial opportunities for the infrastructure businesses who will help us towards Energy Independence. We identified a gap in the marketplace, since none of the available investment products offer exposure to this theme. A new index and associated ETF soon followed.

So it was that your blogger was at the Inside ETFs conference in Hollywood, FL last week. It’s an enormous event with (so we were told) a record 2,300 attendees. It’s a tangible measure of the growth in ETFs, marked by the S&P500 ETF (SPY) conveniently breaching the $300BN market capitalization threshold. The global ETF industry is over $4TN.

Non-investment luminaries such as Serena Williams and General Stan McChrystal added star power to the long list of finance experts giving presentations all day. We didn’t see any of them, because Inside ETFs is an enormous networking event. It’s become the can’t miss date of the year for everybody in the industry. Meetings with business partners and clients took up much of our planned schedule before arriving, and unexpected encounters filled the rest. You really can sit in the convention center lobby and enjoy serial, chance meetings with familiar faces.

The chatter is of success; of funds that generated strong early returns and have grown quickly. Of hot areas (Smart Beta), and underserved sector (European fixed income, believe it or not). It is Behavioral Finance in action. Positive results generate confidence, attracting more assets and more confidence. The winners keep winning. There’s no care for the unloved ETF. Efficient markets proponents hold that there ought to be no serial correlation in returns – in other words, no momentum. Prices reflect all available information, so short term moves are random. In the real world, rising prices attract more buyers, and falling prices draw more selling. This is why markets exhibit momentum, because like-minded people congregate to create a positive feedback loop.

Energy infrastructure endured the inverse of this for much of last year, as the growing divergence against almost all other sectors became self-reinforcing. Until late November, when the last frustrated tax-loss sellers exited stage left, signaling the beginning of a new trend.

In other news, U.S. crude output is set to reach an all-time record in 2018. You’d think it’d be hard to turn this into bad news, unless you’re a Russian oil producer/ But apparently there is a Dark Side of America’s Rise to Oil Superpower, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Problems include the high quality of shale oil, which is lighter than the heavy crudes it’s displacing from countries such as Venezuela. This means it needs less refining. Although refineries may find certain expensively built processes no longer needed, ultimately producing refined products from it is cheaper. This is bad? Sounds like fake news; maybe the Russians planted the story.

The investable American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) finished the week +2.0%. Since the November 29th low in the sector, the AEITR has rebounded 15.0%.


AMLP's Tax Bondage

Tax Freedom Day is that point in the year when you’ve figuratively earned enough to pay all your taxes. For the rest of the year you can feel as if your income is your own. Naturally, it can never come soon enough. Investors in the hopelessly tax-burdened ETF, the Alerian MLP Fund (AMLP) face the contrary prospect: the point at which their investment returns are taxed at the fund level before anything is paid out. If the opposite of freedom is bondage. AMLP investors recently passed Tax Bondage Day.

This comes about because AMLP is not a conventional ETF, but is a tax-paying C-corp. Anecdotally, it’s clear few investors realize this, because most ETF’s are RIC-compliant and therefore not taxable at the fund level. Conventionally, you don’t stop to consider whether the ETF you own is taxed like a corporation. But AMLP is a C-corp, paying taxes on its earnings before paying out what’s left to holders.

The weakness in energy infrastructure last year wiped out unrealized gains for AMLP and many other tax-burdened MLP funds. Since you don’t owe taxes on losses, AMLP’s Deferred Tax Liability (DTL) was eliminated. However, the sector has been recovering since late November, and probably the only negative consequence of the rebound is that AMLP now has unrealized gains once more. Therefore, it has begun to owe corporate taxes again. As of January 16th it owed $93MM, a cost in addition to and approximately equal to their annual management fee. As the market rises, so will their DTL.

You can find further detail on this issue from past blogs. Hedging MLPs explained how AMLP is useful as short position, because the tax drag will limit its appreciation to 79% of the market’s whereas it can still fall 100% of the market. Some MLP Investors Get Taxed Twice and Are You in the Wrong MLP Fund both examine the implications of a tax-paying C-corp for investors.

The reduced corporate tax rate means the tax drag is less than it used to be – and it’s been substantial. Since inception, AMLP has returned less than half its benchmark, largely because of tax expense. The reduced corporate tax rate will help, but it’ll still represent a serious drag on returns. Many investors are expecting strong performance over the next couple of years. Valuations are attractive, and energy lagged the market substantially in 2017. Seeing your fund hand over 21% of a double digit return before paying distributions will represent a substantial cost, and an unnecessary one because there are correctly structured energy infrastructure ETFs around that aren’t subject to corporate tax. It is possible to invest in the sector via a RIC-compliant vehicle.

On a different topic, the U.S. Energy Information Administration confirmed its forecast of record hydrocarbon production in 2018. Natural gas and natural gas liquids broke records in prior years, but this year crude oil production will also breach a previous high. Moreover, the mix of hydrocarbons should please almost everybody because it’s moving heavily away from coal and towards cleaner-burning natural gas. America’s emissions are moving in a better direction, thanks to the Shale Revolution.

The investable American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) finished the week -1.5%. Since the November 29th low in the sector, the AEITR has rebounded 12.8%.

We are short AMLP

Rising Rates and MLPs: Not What You Think

Five years ago my book Bonds Are Not Forever; The Crisis Facing Fixed Income Investors argued that interest rates were likely to stay lower for longer. Excessive debt led to the 2008 Financial Crisis, and our thinking was that low rates were part of the necessary healing process, allowing the burden of debt to be managed down.

Rates have indeed remained low, helped by the Federal Reserve’s very measured steps to “normalize” the Federal Funds rate with periodic hikes. Most forecasters, including the rate-setting members of the Federal Open Market Committee, have consistently expected rates to rise faster than they have.

Nonetheless, ten year treasury yields have been drifting up and recently touched 2.6%. Unemployment remains very low if not yet inflationary. GDP growth and corporate profits are strong. The recent tax changes are fiscally stimulative. Bill Gross has declared that we’re in a bond bear market, and Jeffrey Gundlach sounds equally cautious. It’s likely that this will be an increasing topic of conversation among investors.

We have no view on the near-term direction of bond yields, beyond noting that current yields are too paltry to justify an investment. It’s been a long time since bonds looked attractive. As we noted in our 2017 Year-end Review and Outlook, interest rates are what make stocks attractive. The Equity Risk Premium (S&P500 earnings yield minus the yield on ten year treasury notes) favors stocks, but if rates rose 2% bonds would offer meaningful competition. Although a 4-4.5% ten year treasury yield is a long way off, the historic real return (i.e. yield minus inflation) going back to 1928 is 1.9%.  So 2% above an inflation rate of 2% that’s rising wouldn’t be historically out of line.

Energy infrastructure investors will begin considering how rising rates might affect the sector. Traditionally, MLPs were categorized as an income-generating asset class along with REITs and Utilities. Rising bond yields have in the past represented a headwind for all these sectors, although MLP cashflows are not that sensitive to rate movements. Debt is predominantly fixed rate, and certain elements of the business, such as pipelines that cross state lines, operate under highly regulated tariffs which include annual inflation-linked increases.

But energy infrastructure has undergone substantial changes over the past three years. Although yields are historically attractive, the volatility of 2015-16 was inconsistent with the stable, income-generating asset class investors had sought. As we’ve noted before (see The Changing MLP Investor), the Shale Revolution created growth opportunities that upset the business model and led many MLPs to “simplify,” their structure, which in practice meant they cut distributions in order to finance new investments. Consequently, the path of U.S. hydrocarbon production growth is more important than in the past.

The long term relationship between MLPs and treasury yields is not a stable one. The correlation between rate changes and MLP returns has fluctuated over the years, reflecting that there’s a weak economic connection between the two. Initial moves up in rates have often led to short term weakness in energy infrastructure, probably due to competing fund flows as noted above with REITs and Utilities. However, recent bond market weakness has led to the opposite result. The correlation is becoming negative.

This is likely because the strengthening economy, which is driving up rates, is improving the outlook for the energy sector as well. Energy infrastructure is more sensitive to volume growth, since this increases capacity utilization of existing facilities as well as the likelihood of further growth. A stronger economy will, at the margin, consume more energy. The 12 month rolling correlation (through December 2017) is the most negative it’s been since the sector peaked in August 2014. In January this relationship has persisted, with rates and MLPs both moving higher. So far, the economic forces that are causing weaker bond prices have been positive for energy infrastructure.

The investable American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) finished the week +1.9%. Since the November 29th low in the sector, the AEITR has rebounded 13.9%.


An Expensive, Greenish Energy Strategy

Most of the U.S. has been unseasonably cold – enduring twelve consecutive days of sub-freezing highs in New Jersey while owning a home in SW Florida is your blogger’s self-inflicted wound. The pain is only slightly ameliorated by news of record natural gas consumption of over 140 Billion Cubic Feet (BCF), almost twice the annual daily average.

You’d think that would be enough to satisfy demand, but the extended cold weather has exposed gaps in New England’s energy strategy. The region’s desire to increase its use of natural gas for electricity production is not matched by enthusiasm for infrastructure to get it there. Consequently, prices reached $35 per Thousand Cubic Feet (MCF) recently, roughly ten times the benchmark. Even at that price sufficient quantities weren’t available where needed, with the consequence that burning oil was the biggest source of electricity generation during this period.

In many cases, environmentalists’ views on natural gas are self-defeating. As a replacement for coal it surely reduces harmful emissions, and the widespread switching of coal-burning power plants for gas-burning ones represents a great success for environmentalists — for all of us. U.S. electricity generation is cleaner than in Germany (see It’s Not Easy Being Green). The New England Independent System Operator (ISO) has increased natural gas usage from 15% of electricity generation in 2000 to where it’s the most used fuel (other than very recently).  They correctly note that natural gas supports increased use of renewables, since wind and solar power are intermittent.

It should be a good story, except that the ISO’s increasing reliance on natural gas is opposed by environmentalists blocking the necessary additional infrastructure. In the last couple of years Kinder Morgan (KMI) and Enbridge (ENB) both cancelled projects that would have improved natural gas distribution and storage in the region. This was because of adverse court rulings, and regulations that dis-incentivize utility customers from making the necessary long term purchase commitments, without which infrastructure doesn’t get built.

As well as enduring the highest natural gas prices in the country, Massachusetts also imports Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). New England relies on LNG for 20-40% of its natural gas needs during winter. The Jones Act is a Federal law which requires intra-U.S. shipping to be carried out on U.S. owned, built and crewed ships. It’s expensive, and although this point is not the fault of Massachusetts, it means they’re importing LNG from Trinidad, even though the U.S. exports some of the cheapest LNG in the world. There’s little natural gas storage in the region, because the geology doesn’t support underground storage and opponents have prevented construction of above-ground facilities. Consequently, LNG is imported to Boston when needed in the winter, as long as a winter storm doesn’t disrupt shipping.

The high prices for natural gas in New England aren’t the only problem though. The recent jump in oil use for electricity generation is hardly consistent with lowering emissions. Meanwhile, New England’s ISO is warning that infrastructure development is inadequate, which risks the reliability of the electricity supply and in extreme cases may result in “controlled power outages”. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in November 2017 the Boston area paid 57% more for electricity than the U.S. average, compared with only 28% more five years ago. It’s not just a winter problem. For 2017 (through November) Boston prices were 175% of the national average. New England is a wonderful region of the U.S., but its residents are poorly served by a dysfunctional energy strategy.

On a different topic, global auto sales exceeded 90 million units for the first time last year. China was 25% of the total. 2018 is likely to be another record. This is why the International Energy Agency is forecasting a 1.3% increase in crude oil demand this year.

The investable American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) finished the week +2.7%. Since the November 29th low in the sector, the AEITR has rebounded 12.4%. For most of 2017 the strength in Utilities contrasted with energy infrastructure weakness. However, this relationship has sharply reversed, with the Utilities Sector SPDR ETF (XLU) falling 9.3% since the late November low in AEITR. In mid-November we highlighted the poor relative valuation of the Utility sector (see Why the Shale Revolution Hasn’t Yet Helped MLPs). As the Administration announced plans to open up most of the offshore U.S. for oil and gas exploration, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared, “We’re going to become the strongest energy superpower.”

We are invested in ENB, LNG and KMI.

MLP Distributions Through the Looking Glass

Alerian’s page showing annual distribution growth for the Alerian MLP Index (AMZ) contains their most popular chart (it’s the 4th one down under “Figures and Tables”). It’s no wonder – the steadily growing distributions it portrays should be enough to calm any income seeking, excitement-averse investor. Since it’s their most viewed page, many investors must have drawn comfort from the reliability it presents. The turmoil endured by MLP investors since 2014 appears incongruous when such steady growth in payouts is considered.

Oddly, investors who hold securities linked to the index (such as the JPMorgan Alerian MLP Index ETN: AMJ) have not enjoyed the distribution growth presented by the index. It’s because of Alerian’s curious method of calculation.

The components of the index are updated periodically based on criteria set by Alerian. The growth figure they calculate takes the index members at the end of the year, and looks back to calculate the year-over-year growth rate they experienced. Some of those names may not have been in the index over the prior two years, and perhaps more importantly those names that have been dropped (often because they cut their payout) are excluded.

The distribution growth rate therefore reflects what today’s index members are growing at. This may be useful information, but it’s not the same as calculating the growth rate of distributions received by investors in the index. Moreover, it creates an upward bias to the calculation, because poorly performing names who cut their payouts are dropped while recently IPO’d high fliers are included. During the 2015-16 MLP collapse Alerian relaxed the requirement that any AMZ member cutting their distribution be excluded, probably because it would have led to an overly concentrated index.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” It’s Growth Through the Looking Glass.

The distribution history of AMJ, which is benchmarked to AMZ, shows that actual payouts have been falling since 2015. MLPs have been cutting payouts. Investors know this. The miserably tax-burdened ETF AMLP (seven year since inception return 2.8%, roughly half its index benchmark. See Some MLP Investors Get Taxed Twice), cut its distribution by 15.6% in 2017 following a 13.8% cut in 2016. AMJ’s 2017 dividends are 8% lower than the prior year. The AMZ distribution growth chart suggests a more positive history, and will presumably show better 2017 growth versus its linked investment products when it’s updated.

“But have distributions been growing or shrinking?” asked Alice. “Yes”, replied Humpty Dumpty.

Alerian is very open about their process. In February 2016 Alerian’s Karyl Patredis explained the procedure behind the chart. I know Alerian’s CEO Kenny Feng. He’s smart and has built a fine business. I’m sure there’s absolutely no intent to mislead people.

But this look-back methodology is not intuitive. It clearly doesn’t align with how investors actually experience dividend growth. If investors infer from the chart that MLP distributions have been growing steadily, they’re more likely to buy an Alerian-linked product such as AMJ or AMLP.

MLPs are redirecting more of their cash flow into new projects, and many of the larger ones have become C-corps so as to access a far wider set of investors. As a result, MLPs represent a shrinking piece of the energy infrastructure sector. To be a pure MLP investor today is to miss out on many of the biggest companies that are supporting America’s drive to Energy Independence.

This is why we created the American Energy Independence Index (up 6.5% in December), and its investable ETF, to better reflect what’s happening in energy infrastructure. As we’ve noted before (see The Changing MLP Investor), yield is less relevant to today’s investors. Stable businesses are reinvesting for growth, which is attracting total-return buyers. MLP payouts have been falling to allow for reinvestment back in their businesses and to reduce leverage. To believe MLP distributions have been growing is to follow a white rabbit down a hole.

MLPs Glimpse Daylight

Tromso, Norway, sits 215 miles inside the Arctic Circle. It is one of the planet’s most northerly human settlements. Around January 25th at lunchtime, its inhabitants drop what they’re doing and gather outside for their first glimpse of the sun in two months. It’s only visible for four minutes, but the first natural shadows after interminable darkness are a welcome confirmation of Spring’s approach. One resident told a visitor, “If you haven’t lived through a winter like ours you can’t imagine what it’s like.”

This Fall our church welcomed a new rector. He’s English, which allows us to discuss Premier League football at a depth inaccessible to other congregants. His beautifully written sermons are delivered with humor and grace. A recent homily opened with Tromso’s dawn, and led to a discussion of maintaining religious faith during spiritual darkness. I hope our rector isn’t disappointed that for me, emerging from Tromso’s dark winter also evoked the secular feelings of an MLP investor maintaining conviction in the profitable path to American Energy Independence. If you haven’t lived through a bear market in energy when stocks are making new highs all year, you can’t imagine what it’s like. Sunlight can’t be far away. Even in Tromso, winter ends.

At their darkest, MLP fund outflows during 4Q17 were comparable to the worst of late 2015 and drove valuations relentlessly lower, creating a negative feedback loop. As income-seeking investors left the sector (see The Changing MLP Investor), the consequent selling has tested the conviction of others. Some just gave up – the relentless slipping of prices during a rip-roaring bull market in almost everything has eroded the confidence of many.

However, it’s looking as if December may be the dawn for battered energy infrastructure investors, with the late-year seasonal pattern once again playing out (see November MLP Fund Flows Overwhelm Fundamentals). The most recent data shows that the fund outflows have virtually finished. Taxes are probably the catalyst. In November (often the weakest month), uncertainty about what the GOP tax bill would ultimately mean for MLPs further damaged already fragile sentiment. Bloomberg’s  The Senate Tax Plan Sets a Trapdoor for MLPs in late November epitomized the concerns some had about adverse tax changes.

Tax-loss selling has been another big influence. Most investors have realized gains this year and selling energy losers offers a way to reduce taxable gains. Moreover, winners are more plentiful than losers, leaving investors with few places to find losses other than among their energy infrastructure holdings.

But taxes also provided support more recently, because the final legislation was beneficial to MLPs. The tax-deferred portion of distributions is typically taxed at ordinary income rates, but that will now benefit from the 20% discount for pass-through businesses. There was some further good news for General Partners (GPs), in that Incentive Distribution Rights payments will also receive preferential pass-through treatment rather than being taxed as ordinary income. In spite of initial concerns, given a few days to assess the final bill it’s clear it provides a welcome boost to the after-tax income of both MLP and GP investors. Bloomberg’s trapdoor wasn’t triggered. The table below reflects the final legislation passed by Congress last week.

The American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) is +4.5% so far in December. After a torrid few months, MLP returns are improving. Although the sector is still negative for the year, the AEITR has bounced +7.3% since the late November Bloomberg story mentioned above. For investors, it just might signal the start of sunny days once more.