The Biggest Pipeline Companies Are Doing Well

Last week Enbridge (ENB) and Enterprise Products (EPD), North America’s two biggest pipeline companies, were among those reporting earnings. Both beat expectations – ENB reported 2Q EBITDA of $3,312MM versus $3,155MM, helped by strong results in natural gas transmission. EPD came in at $1,961MM versus $1,877MM, boosted by strength in crude oil. Dividend yields of 7.7% (ENB) and 10.1% (EPD) look secure.

The earnings calls that accompany quarterly results often provide some interesting additions. The ENB call included several exchanges with analysts on renewables. For example, CEO Al Monaco noted, “…we know the supply profile is going to change globally for energy. It’s not going to be a quick transition by any stretch, but slowly renewables will be a bigger portion.” He continued, “U.S. offshore wind is certainly an attractive opportunity but… the supply chains are not as developed yet”

Bill Yardley, President of Gas Transmission & Midstream, added,“…on the ISO website… wind is 30 megawatts, natural gas is 10,200. You could quadruple the amount of wind as they’re projecting and it’s just–on the peak hours, it’s just not there.”

Although ENB expects renewables to gain market share, conventional fuels still get most of their spending on new projects. Al Monaco explained, “In terms of the asset mix today, I think when we repositioned the asset mix to almost 50/50, I’m going to call it, between natural gas and the liquids businesses, with a little bit in there for renewables, I think we’re happy with the mix there.”

Hydrogen as a potential renewable fuel has been drawing a lot of interest recently. For example, on Nextera’s (NEE) call, hydrogen appears 25 times in the transcript. But it’s still way off in the future.  Rebecca Kujawa, CFO, noted that NEE is, “really excited about hydrogen, particularly in the 2030 and beyond time frame”

On the same topic, ENB’s Bill Yardley added, “Natural gas pipeline networks may be repurposed for hydrogen at some point in the future, if the economics work. To that end, It’s extremely expensive – you know, is it green hydrogen, is it blue hydrogen, how does it interact with the pipelines and the actual steel in the pipeline, and that takes a lot of engineering to look at. But you’re right – the network, and this is decades from now, would be well positioned if hydrogen transitioned from that shiny object that is potentially a solution to a reality.”

EPD’s CEO Jim Teague often adds some colorful phrases and humor to these calls. He referred to the prior quarter’s conference call as a “COVID call” and opened last week by saying, “…today, we are going to tell you our COVID story.”

Since EPD had beaten expectations during a tumultuous period in energy markets, Teague immediately addressed the issue: “We usually get the question of how much of our results are non-recurring, and it is the same question we got when Katrina blew through South Louisiana and literally knocked out every plant we had…Demand came back before indigenous supply and we made more money with our West to East pipelines than if those plants had been running. So it was non-recurring.

“We got that question during Hurricane Ike in 2008… got the question in Hurricane Harvey in 2017.” Teague continued,” Events like what we are going through now, and the opportunities they present may be labeled as non-recurring, but our performance and our results are recurring regardless of the environment.” In other words, the diversity and naturally offsetting risks among business lines create the opportunity for recurring upside surprise.

Crude oil dominates sentiment around pipelines, although natural gas is more important. Little attention is paid to the non-energy side of the business, such as plastics. Teague reminded listeners that,“…the United States, especially in ethylene, has quickly moved into being the world’s incremental supplier.” He added, “In June, we loaded a record size ethylene cargo of 44 million pounds.”

Growth capex is also falling as both companies are maintaining strict return criteria. Teague said, “For 2021 and 2022, we currently anticipate growth capital investments to be approximately $2.3 billion and $1 billion respectively. This is an aggregate $700 million reduction from guidance we provided for 2021 and 2022, at the end of the first quarter.” Last year EPD spent $4BN. Their Free Cash Flow in 2022 is on track to have doubled in only three years.

Both companies can issue ten year debt “with a two handle”, reflecting the confidence of bond investors  in their balance sheets and showing a  juxtaposition with their dividend yields.

Earnings continue to support our expectation of strong cash generation (see Pipeline Cash Flows Will Still Double This Year). Listening to conference calls like these provides further comfort around the outlook.

We are invested in ENB, EPD, and all the components of the American Energy Independence Index via the ETF that seeks to track its performance.

Lower Spending Cheers Pipeline Investors

In February, following our criticism of Kinder Morgan’s (KMI) return on invested capital (see Kinder Morgan’s Slick Numeracy) the company, to their credit, reached out to us so as to better present their perspective. Our point was that capital allocation decisions in recent years had not always been accretive to equity. We offered the company an opportunity to write a rebuttal which we promised to publish, unedited, but they declined. So we summarized their response (see Kinder Morgan Responds to our Recent Criticism).

Not long after, Covid dominated the news, and historic returns on invested capital took a backseat to gauging current demand destruction. KMI’s stock sank from $21 to under $10, before recovering roughly halfway to $14.

KMI kicked off earnings reports for the sector last week. We were most interested in their outlook, but also in their planned growth capex. Industry-wide spending reductions are driving improved profitability (see Pipeline Cash Flows Will Still Double This Year).

KMI announced a $1BN goodwill writedown on natural gas gathering and processing assets previously acquired. Although a non-cash expense, this is an example of capital deployed whose cash generation will no longer meet its target. KMI will blame Covid, but nonetheless it’s a loss for shareholders.

The company confirmed guidance of $1.7BN in “expansion opportunities” (we winced) for 2020. This is well below their prior range of $2-3BN annually over the next decade, as initially communicated in April during the depths of lost production. Several questions followed on the earnings call – in response to Shneur Gershuni of UBS,  CEO Steve Kean allowed that future capex, “looks like it hangs around the level we’re seeing in 2020, maybe a little less.”

This cheered us, and later JPMorgan’s Jeremy Tonet asked, “…is there a scenario where 2021, or maybe in 2022, where growth CapEx could be as low as $1 billion?” We were left positively giddy when Steve Kean replied, “We’re close, yes. We’re close.”

When it comes to pipeline company growth capex plans, they share the qualities of an overly vigorous golf swing – less is more.

KMI’s adjusted EBITDA came in at $1,568MM versus expectations of $1,634MM. They also lowered full year DCF to 11% below budget (was previously 10% below). They still plan to increase their dividend to  $1.25 annually, which would yield over 8.5% at the current stock price. They expect to reach 4.5X Debt/EBITDA although conceded 4.7X is their likely year-end level.  They also pushed back the date at which they expect to be a corporate taxpayer to 2026.

Meanwhile, domestic production is recovering along with demand. In recent weeks, oil production has risen from 9.7 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) to 10.9 MMB/D, and the industry now expects it to settle in around 11 MMB/D. That’s still well below the pre-Covid level, which was on track to hit 13 MMB/D by year’s end. But it’s improving. “It’s a slow, slow recovery, but it’s happening,” said Alexandre Ramos-Peon, a senior analyst at Rystad Energy, a consultancy.

Natural gas demand of 85.5 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D) remains close to a year ago of 89.4 BCF/D, exhibiting very little response to Covid. LNG exports of 3.7BCF/D are down by 2.4 BCF/D, representing more than half the drop as global LNG demand has softened somewhat. Overall, the market hasn’t registered much impact.

Pipeline stocks such as KMI have dividend yields that reflect considerable market skepticism regarding their longevity. Bond investors harbor few doubts, as we noted recently in comparing Enterprise Products Partners 30 year debt yields of around 3% with the almost 10% dividend yield (see Pipelines Are Becoming Less Risky). KMI just announced a 2050 maturity with a 3.25% coupon. The chasm between dividends and bond yields in this sector reflect rigid investor segmentation, and a misallocation of capital by fixed income buyers who would greatly benefit from the flexibility to incorporate some equity risk.

Earnings reports from other big pipeline companies over the next few weeks should provide confirmation of growing free cash flow and secure dividends.

We are invested in EPD, KMI and all the components of the American Energy Independence Index via the ETF that seeks to track its performance.

Pipelines Are Becoming Less Risky

Before the Shale Revolution, midstream energy infrastructure was a boringly stable sector. MLPs, which predominated versus corporations back then, paid out most of the cash they generated and grew distributions through price escalators and improved operating efficiencies. Volatility was low, and attractive yields drew income-seeking investors. This happy marriage started to fall apart in 2015, when the industry embraced the same growth ethos that drove their upstream customers. Leverage and volatility rose, causing distribution cuts and the older, wealthy K-1 tolerant American investor started to leave (see AMLP’s Shrinking Investor Base).

In conversations with investors, the subject of volatility often comes up. Yields are attractive – the broad-based American Energy Independence Index, AEITR yields 9.3% on a trailing basis. Few cuts in payouts are likely as companies report 2Q earnings. Kinder Morgan (KMI) maintained their dividend in Wednesday’s release. Some had been questioning whether Oneok (OKE) would maintain their dividend, but they reaffirmed it on Thursday, yielding 13.4%. Legal uncertainty remains around whether the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has a secure future (listen to Judicial Over-Reach on the Dakota Access Pipeline). Phillips 66 Partners, LP (PSXP) is most exposed, but they’re only 0.6% of the AEITR. Although Energy Transfer built DAPL and retains 36% ownership, it’s only 3.5% of their EBITDA.

In summary, payment of today’s attractively high payouts is likely to continue. Investors are trying to assess whether they’ll need to endure further downside volatility while clipping coupons.

Relative to the overall market, the movements of today’s pipeline sector are more pronounced but still well short of the 2015 collapse, when energy sector weakness didn’t spill over into the S&P500. Early this year saw the biggest fall in AEITR’s history, but the panic over Covid drove the S&P500 down in the first quarter too, as indiscriminate selling was widespread. Although pipelines have rebounded strongly since then, the AEITR remains down 27% for the year – 10% ahead of the MLP-heavy Alerian Index, but still well short of matching the market, which is in positive territory.

There are three reasons to think that more stability lies ahead for the sector. First, spending on new projects peaked in 2018, and the pandemic has caused every company to further reassess plans for 2020. The result is that pipelines will generate twice as much cash as they did last year (see Pipeline Cash Flows Will Still Double This Year).

Second, closed end funds, whose selling in March exacerbated an already extremely weak sector, have lost much of their ability to repeat this performance. This is because heavy losses destroyed much of their asset base, a development welcomed by all except those unfortunate enough to have assumed the fund managers practiced any responsible oversight of their leverage (see The Virus Infecting MLPs).

Third and perhaps most importantly, pipeline companies are reducing leverage. These slides from recent investor presentations by Enterprise Products, Kinder Morgan and Williams Companies are reflective of what’s happening across the industry. Stronger balance sheets will reassure rating agencies and investors that sharply rising free cash flow is sustainable.

These are all reasons to believe that tomorrow’s pipeline industry will return to the lower volatility and higher returns of 5-10 years ago.

We are invested in EPD, ET, KMI, WMB and all the components of the American Energy Independence Index via the ETF that seeks to track its performance.

Covid By The Numbers

The recent news on Covid-19 has been mostly bad. Infections are increasing sharply in sunbelt states, where Florida now holds the record for two worst days’ new infections – 15,300 and 13,965, both reached last week. Reopening plans are being halted. Even the Republican convention scheduled for late August, which was moved from Charlotte, NC to Jacksonville, FL (i.e. from a Democrat governor to a Republican one), has been scaling back its planned attendance.

We’ve aimed to be apolitical in covering what is the biggest story concerning investors nowadays (see Taking The Politics Out Of Covid-19). Writing about this is a fraught subject – you don’t want to get Covid-19, and there have been over 140,000 deaths each one of which is a tragic loss. It continues to be a traumatic time for the country. My mother is high risk, in assisted living, and our interactions with her are constrained in both frequency and form.

Nonetheless, we focus on the data, which we interpret as more optimistic than the media coverage for the overall population. Some readers have criticized us for this. Equity markets clearly have a more sanguine view (see Is Being Bullish Socially Acceptable?), and investors may be wrong or they may collectively also be interpreting the data as more positive. We think it’s worth trying to understand the implied relative optimism, as it contrasts so strongly with how many of us feel.

With that preamble, let me introduce a fascinating table that Kyle Lamb has recently posted on Twitter analyzing Covid-19 fatalities. Some effort is required to fully appreciate the depth of information it contains – we’ll explain:

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishes a Provisional Death Count which tracks “deaths involving Covid-19”. CDC data relies on death certificates being processed, so lags by several weeks the data published by the Covid Tracking Project (CTP), which is what most media outlets use. Although both produce weekly data, the CDC updates prior weeks for a couple of months, as they receive new information.

For example, reading off the table for the week ending April 4, CTP shows 6,962. The CDC data shows 9,909, a figure they’ve been revising up every week. The first time they reported a figure for April 4 was on April 11, and it was 2,602. If you sum all the colored cells horizontally, you get the fatality total for the week in the “When Died” column.

If you sum the colored cells vertically, you get what the CDC revisions to prior weeks totaled.

Both have revised their websites to higher figures since the table was produced.

What the table does is break down the CDC fatalities for any given week into multiple weekly buckets to show when they were reported. So the red cells show the CDC’s initial estimate of fatalities for that week. Moving to the right, the orange cells show the number of additional fatalities added to that week’s total a week later.

So what’s the point? Although the CDC’s initial weekly estimate is always revised up, after eight weeks they have most of the data. Within the first two weeks, they typically have 50-60% of the ultimate total for that week.

On April 18, the CDC reported 4,811 deaths for the prior week, a figure that eventually rose to 16,014. The most recent week on the table, ending July 18, shows 272 for the prior week (more recently revised up to 1,099 on the CDC website, which could mean faster reporting or increased fatalities). As the CDC’s initial weekly estimates are falling, it’s reasonable to assume that the ultimate figures will also fall. Clearly sunbelt states are seeing increases, but today’s infected patients are faring much better. They’re younger and are benefitting from improved treatments. Nursing homes have learned to better protect their highly vulnerable residents. CTP fatalities remain well under half the levels of April, when New York was the epicenter.

Stocks continue to trend higher. You should still wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently, as we do. But we’re getting through this.

Installed Pipelines Are Worth More

Sunday’s blog (see Pipeline Opponents Help Free Cash Flow) drew some interesting feedback. It seems odd to favor constrained growth opportunities, and it’s contrary to how most management teams will assess their outlook. But for many pipeline investors, including your blogger, the pre-Shale years of steady returns were what made the sector attractive. Anti-fossil fuel activists refuse to acknowledge how the world works, but they are making new pipelines cost-prohibitive, just as nuclear opposition has done for that source of power.

Investors have asked about the prospects for the Dakota Access Pipeline, DAPL (listen to Judicial Over-Reach on the Dakota Access Pipeline). Judge Boasberg ruled that DAPL should shut down, and allowed only 30 days for it to be emptied of crude oil even though the owners argued that was too little time. Once shut down, there is a real question as to whether it will ever re-open. Since the pipeline is built and in use, you’d think shutting it would require extraordinary circumstances.

Yesterday evening, a U.S. Appeals Court granted an administrative stay while it considers whether the line, long opposed by local tribes and environmental activists, should be shut.

In this case, the government has been found to have incorrectly issued the permit allowing it to be built. Ludicrous analogies are easily constructed – if you can’t safely build with government approval in hand, nothing much could get done in this country. The courts will decide if Judge Boasberg is correct on the law, but if he is it means the law is wrong and needs to be fixed. We think this is a unique case, and that existing pipelines are not at risk of being shut down.

Even if the shut-down order is ultimately overturned, the Army Corp of Engineers has been told to carry out a more robust environmental study than was originally done. Although the Trump administration could appeal this requirement, it appears that there is insufficient time to do so before the election. One of Trump’s first acts following his inauguration was to direct the Army Corp of Engineers to issue the necessary permit. That legal challenges have outlasted the term of this administration with DAPL’s prospects still not resolved further highlights the challenges of new projects.

Investors have to consider the possibility of a Biden victory, which will lead to a changed emphasis towards climate change in the White House. In this scenario, DAPL’s prospects would be unclear. If it’s been shut down pending a revised environmental study, it may never re-open. The hit to Energy Transfer (ET) is around 3.5% of EBITDA, which we think is already priced in.

Although Biden is calling for $2 trillion to be spent on clean energy, Covid is causing a ballooning Federal budget deficit, currently $2.7 trillion with three months of the fiscal year remaining. As a % of GDP we’re approaching World War II levels. Being better prepared for another pandemic is likely to be more important than in the past, so cheap, plentiful domestic natural gas will continue to gain market share in providing energy to Americans. It’s confidence in this future that underpinned Berkshire recent acquisition of Dominion’s pipeline and storage assets.

Meanwhile, existing pipelines are more valuable. Dominion and Duke Energy abandoned their Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) even though they had successfully fended off legal challenges and had plenty of customer commitments. So Transco, owned by Williams Companies (WMB) and operating from Texas to New York, is well positioned to meet some of this unsatisfied demand. They may even find a way to bring Appalachian natural gas to customers in North Carolina by building on to their existing network. They’ll have no competition.

Since the ACP cancelation WMB has outperformed the sector, as defined by the broad-based American Energy Independence Index. Both have outperformed the Alerian MLP Index, since investors continue to avoid concentrated MLP exposure.

We are invested in ET and WMB.

We publish the American Energy Independence Index


The Stock Market’s Heartless Optimism

Last week in our local paper, the Obituaries section ran to three pages. 17 people were listed. 14 of them were over 80, and three were in their 60s. The steady drumbeat of death, economic destruction and lockdown is why the stock market looks as if it’s divorced from reality. The S&P500 is only down 11.7% for the year, after being up 31% in 2019. In late March it briefly dipped below 2,200, where it registered -32% YTD. If instead it had simply spent the last four months meandering down to its present level, performance would be just moderately poor.

The stock market may not be right, but the collective outlook of investors is that we’re enduring an economic blip that will pass within a year or so. Bottom-up S&P500 earnings forecasts are for next year to be higher than last year – and 2021 earnings forecasts have already been revised 12% lower since January.

The news and the mood are terrible. The stock market is heartless, but is it also irrelevant? If earnings come in as expected next year – admittedly still a big “if” since revisions continue to be down – stocks are cheap. The Equity Risk Premium (ERP — S&P500 earnings yield minus ten year treasury yield) is at the levels of the 2008 financial crisis, even following a 27% rebound from the March lows. Unless 2021 earnings are revised down substantially, the relative attraction of stocks will draw them still higher. If the market keeps rising, the resulting headlines will coincide with, and perhaps cause, a lifting of the popular mood.

What is the cold-hearted analysis that’s reflected in today’s valuations? What follows is not a run at amateur scientist, for which we’re not qualified. It’s a virus-driven upside explanation for stocks.

As much as it pains me to write this, and with deep sympathy for the many families who have lost a loved one, the fact is that not that many people are dying. In two months, 50,000 Americans have died from Coronavirus. We probably undercounted somewhat at the beginning, and it’s likely the virus was killing people as early as January. We may be overcounting now, because if a patient dies with Coronavirus it’s more likely to be recorded as the cause of death even if they suffered from other, serious illnesses.

In 2018, the CDC reports 2,839,205 deaths in America. People are a bit more likely to die in the winter, but on average around 7,780 people die every day. Over the past two months, we would have expected just over 473,000 deaths anyway. The 50,000 Coronavirus-attributed deaths is, without doubt, 50,000 too many. But the demographics are by now widely known to be heavily weighted towards older people, just as in our local paper’s Obituaries section. The virus is denying as full a life as all these people deserve, but its lethality for younger people overwhelmingly relies on other serious health conditions.

One bright spot is that the most recently weekly CDC figures report only 62% of “Expected Deaths from All Causes”. This is partly because nobody is driving anywhere, so road deaths are down. On average, 730 people die every week in car accidents. The fortunate souls who are alive thanks to lockdown don’t know who they are, but they’ll be consuming products and services for many years to come.

The infection numbers are largely useless, because in the U.S. we’ve only tested 1.4% of the population and you generally have to be sick to get a test. 5.7% of those who tested positive have died, a catastrophically high figure. However, serology tests which look for antibodies as evidence of prior infection are implying that Coronavirus has spread much wider than as measured by reported infections. Lots of people suffer mild symptoms or even none at all (they are “asymptomatic”). Results from LA County and Santa Clara in California suggest the true infection rate is 50X higher in those regions. New York City estimates that 21% of its residents have been infected.

An infection rate fifty times higher means a fatality rate fifty times lower. At the outset, health professionals told us that the vast majority of us weren’t in mortal danger from contracting it. This seems to be true. Economically, that brings a return to new normal closer. The many constraints on our liberty and enormous economic damage have been imposed not to protect everyone, but to prevent the small percentage who will require hospitalization from overwhelming the system (‘flatten the curve”). Widespread compliance has been an enormously selfless act, but this has its limits and we’ll transition to more targeted means of protecting our most vulnerable citizens. Earnings forecasts dispassionately reflect that.

It also means that society will learn to live with Coronavirus long before everybody’s been vaccinated. This is not a widely held view. If the fatality rate is 5%, we’re all going to want a vaccine as quickly as possible. Shortening the testing period and taking some risks with side effects is a worthwhile trade-off. But if the fatality rate is less than a tenth of that, and maybe as low as the flu at 0.1%, widespread vaccination will occur at a more measured pace. Higher risk groups such as the elderly will derive more benefit, even from a vaccine that’s not been subjected to normal testing. But if you’re young and healthy, medical authorities will determine that the years-long testing schedule remains appropriate. A vaccine that’s used prematurely would lower participation in all types of vaccination program, creating a real health catastrophe. And many people may decide for themselves to wait until the Coronavirus vaccine has been widely used safely, with no meaningful side effects. Only half the adult population gets an annual flu shot. It could be several years before a Coronavirus vaccine reaches a sizeable majority of Americans.

Most pipeline companies have maintained guidance at or close to prior levels. Cuts in growth capex more than make up for lower expected cash flow from operations, which will support their free cash flow. Kinder Morgan raised their dividend by 5%. Other large cap companies including Enbridge, Enterprise Products, TC Energy and Williams (all members of the American Energy Independence Index) have maintained payouts, even though every company has a free pass on cutting dividends right now. Like the rest of big American business, midstream energy infrastructure companies are assessing their own outlook, and it’s not as dire as the news.

The virus could take an unexpected turn. We have no scientific insight to offer on that. But today’s market reflects today’s facts as we know them. Rather than the stock market not reflecting reality, maybe it’s telling us to be more optimistic.

We are invested in all the stocks mentioned above.


The Upside Case for Pipelines

Client interaction has been overwhelmingly constructive – we haven’t had a single call from anyone wanting to “sell everything.” Our fund has seen very modest net outflows, and new money has been coming in every day.

One investor said on the weekend that we need to present the positive case more forcefully. So, here it is:

  • Our midstream energy infrastructure investments and the components of the American Energy Independence Index are >75% investment grade companies. The industry has been reducing leverage and strengthening balance sheets since the 2014-16 oil collapse. Growth projects are increasingly funded with cash from operations, with less reliance on debt and no equity issuance. 4X Debt:EBITDA is common, using 2020 guidance which will be revised down in the coming weeks.
  • We estimate around 80% of the customers of our portfolio companies are themselves investment grade. Cheniere Energy is 100% in this respect, so although they’re in the 25% of our companies that’s not investment grade, the credit quality of their customer base provides some comfort.
  • While energy demand will dip, and economic activity is contracting, there’s plenty of reason to think that in the weeks and months ahead all the efforts at mitigation and control will leave society confronting a new but manageable virus. Getting through the near term is understandably everyone’s focus, but life will eventually return to something we all recognize. Global crude demand fell just 2%% from 2007 to 2009. Natural gas volumes were unaffected. Demand may fall more than then, and supply further still. Although exports are more important than before, the U.S. pipeline business is mostly natural gas and NGLs (primarily petrochemical feedstock), and is mostly about U.S. consumption. We estimate that crude & refined products contribute just 20% of cash flows.
  • Companies can improve cash flow by curtailing growth projects. Upstream companies are likely to cut production and growth capex by 20-40%. So far, Oneok (OKE) is the only midstream company to have issued any revised guidance, and they reduced 2020 growth capex by $500MM (20%), while surprisingly reaffirming EBITDA guidance. In Updating the Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher we forecast 2020 Free Cash Flow (FCF) of $22BN (up from $9BN last year). This forecast relies on guidance from companies that is all pre-Coronavirus. However, it also incorporates $37BN of capex spending this year. It’s quite conceivable that pipeline companies’ capex reductions could more than offset any drop in cash flow from operations. We were assuming Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) of $59BN. FCF is derived from DCF minus growth capex. If DCF fell by 20%, which is not in any forecast we’ve seen so far, growth capex would likely drop by more, which would cushion the ultimate impact on FCF.
  • Unlike the 2015 downturn, capex is now internally financed. Midstream energy infrastructure companies stopped accessing public markets for equity a couple of years ago, and have no need to do so now. Moreover, debt is long-term and staggered. We don’t see near-term debt financing problems.
  • Lastly, assuming an average 20% decline in growth capex similar to Oneok’s announcement, the sector trades at a 2021E 15.6% FCF yield (that’s after capex), fully supporting its 13% dividend yield. Few other sectors have such valuation support today.

The energy sector has taken a triple hit from Coronavirus, OPEC+ collapse and Saudi supply hikes. Investors are most worried about which names will survive. Those with leverage were forced to sell last week, notably including MLP closed end funds. We don’t use leverage and haven’t been forced to sell anything, either for ourselves or for client accounts. Today for example, we have not made a single sale. Sit tight. This will eventually pass. It’s not inconceivable that prices could eventually double from here.

Once America confronts a challenge, history shows that we deploy unmatched resources to take it on and defeat it. The impact on society arrived like a thunderbolt in recent days, and as a country we’ve been knocked on our heels. But our response is coming, and no country is better equipped to come right back and do whatever is required to overwhelm this threat.

Coronavirus Makes Market History

Thursday’s fall in equity markets was the worst since the October 19th, 1987 stock market crash. I was a young interest rate trader then, and that evening I warned my wife that we should stock up on canned food while we prepared for another 1930s Depression. She scoffed that only Wall Street had a problem, and that Main Street was fine.

1987, 2008 and today have different causes, but the need for some solid valuation guideposts is the same. The Equity Risk Premium (ERP) is the difference between the S&P500’s Earnings Per Share (EPS) yield (inverse of the P/E) and ten year treasury yields. Assuming, EPS drop 15%, the ERP is showing stocks to be attractive. A 15% drop seems conservative, and would be approximately the same as 2008, but we’ll emerge from this crisis into a different world. Based on what we know today, broad equity exposure looks cheap.

Energy sector investors have endured several years of underperformance. The industry has invested more in exploiting the Shale Revolution than investors wanted them to. Crude oil has been hit by the Covid-19 demand shock, collapse of OPEC+ and Saudi Arabia’s subsequent decision to increase supply into an over-supplied market.

Domestic energy demand will drop, but it will eventually recover. The upstream companies that drill for oil are at the epicenter of the price collapse. Midstream energy infrastructure companies care about the financial health of their customers as well as the volumes flowing through the system. The sector entered this downturn with stronger balance sheets than in 2014 and with a developing very positive free cash flow story (see Updating the Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher).

We expect most to follow Oneok (OKE) in cutting spending on growth projects this year, which will free up cash to further reduce debt. The American Energy Independence Index consists of 75% investment grade companies doing about 80% of their business with investment grade customers. The index is down around 50% YTD, roughly the same as U.S. airline stocks, which are regarded as needing some type of short term Federal government support.

Finally, an interesting chart from Ethan Bellamy at RW Baird, which illustrates the shift in the crude oil curve over the past three months. Spot prices have moved much more that deferred futures contracts. Saudi Arabia and Russia are generally sellers into the spot market, while shale drillers tend to hedge future output for the next couple of years. Because the curve is in contango, sales in the spot market have the lowest realizations.

A strategy to damage the shale industry would create backwardation, as existed in December. In that environment, forward sales of output realize lower prices than spot, which is good for big producers like Saudi Arabia. Their goal is to drive down futures prices along the curve, and the chart shows that spot prices have dropped $30 to produce a far smaller change at, say, the 36 month point. It’s a very expensive strategy for the sellers. At least the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is being replenished cheaply.

Energy had the worst week any of us can recall, and few readers probably have much appetite for a bullish view. For investors and asset managers in the sector, Friday’s rally was welcome but well short of compensating for prior losses. So we’ll just let the chart speak for itself.

Update Thursday, March 12th, 10:30am

Bankruptcy risk is the topic investors want to discuss in calls this week. Within the American Energy Independence Index, the pipeline industry is 80% investment grade companies. We estimate that around 20% of it is direct exposure to crude oil pipelines. 80% of their customers are themselves investment grade.

During the 2008 financial crisis, crude oil consumption dropped 10% and natural gas was unaffected (see With Energy Uncertainty, Natural Gas Offers Stability).

These are some of the facts and figures investors should rely on in assessing the outlook. Then we have to judge how Americans are going to respond to the spread of coronavirus. Everybody can form their own judgment, because none of us has any prior experience with the issue. Avoidance of the virus is far more economically destructive than the sickness itself.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said two in three Germans may become infected in the years ahead. It seems that it’ll be hard to avoid.

Companies are lowering their growth capex plans for this year, which will improve Free Cash Flow (FCF) from what it would otherwise be. Oneok (OKE) yesterday reaffirmed their 2020 EBITDA guidance, while cutting capex.

The OPEC+ collapse and subsequent Saudi production increase are a direct hit at a sector that’s been under pressure for years. A month ago, the outlook was positive with FCF set to rise sharply.

None of us knows how society will respond in the weeks ahead. The best advice we can offer is that this is generally an investment grade industry, and that while energy consumption will temporarily drop, it will recover. The components of the index have a trailing dividend yield of 13%, with payout ratios of just 60%.

Quick Update After OPEC+ Collapse

Yesterday’s blog on the positive free cash flow story was largely written before Saturday’s news that precipitated today’s sharp sell off. It’s doubtful any company would reaffirm prior guidance if asked right now.

Investment grade names are better to own than high yield issuers; exposure to natural gas infrastructure is better than crude oil pipelines; corporations are preferred over partnerships.

We would not recommend outright sales at present.

We doubt $30 crude oil will produce enough supply to meet demand over the long run, but we have to get through the short run first.