Saturday`s Attack Is A Game Changer

Early analysis of the twin attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure has focused on the length and severity of supply disruption. 5.7 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) of lost output is the biggest supply drop in history, although its impact will depend on how long it takes to repair the damage.

This misses two more important results: (1) the physical vulnerability of Middle Eastern energy infrastructure, and (2) the increasing odds of regional conflict.

The attack laid bare Saudi Arabia’s inability to defend itself or even intercept enemy drones traveling through its airspace. This is an embarrassing failure of the Saudi military to protect the kingdom’s vital infrastructure. Buyers of crude oil will need to consider the ability of suppliers to deliver on their commitments. A substantial portion of the world’s energy comes from unstable regions, and Saturday’s attack showed that it’s possible to create significant disruption by targeting chokepoints in the supply chain (Investors Look Warily at the Persian Gulf).

It’s not just crude oil that’s at risk, although that is the current focus. Qatar is the world’s biggest exporter of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), sending around 10 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D) through the Straits of Hormuz,  25% of the global LNG market. The five biggest export markets are in Asia, where 75% of LNG trade takes place.

Global Chokepoints for Crude Oil

The risk of disruption to LNG and seaborne crude trade is now higher. At the margin this all makes Middle East sourced hydrocarbons more expensive and less reliable. Higher maritime insurance, additional storage in case of supply disruption and all the related risks of doing trade in a region sliding towards open conflict will require market adjustment.

By contrast, the U.S. energy sector is a clear winner. Its infrastructure is geographically dispersed and protected by the world’s military superpower as well as two oceans. The reliability of American supply suddenly seems a bit more important.  Added to that, Canada’s export pipelines  connect to the U.S. providing another reliable 3.5MMB/D of oil supply.

U.S. midstream energy infrastructure also has more global importance, since the growing role of the U.S. as an exporter makes world markets more reliant on a producer able to lift production when needed.

The Permian basin, which accounts for most of U.S production growth, is only expected to add about 0.6 MMB/D over the next year, so won’t suddenly produce an additional 1 MMB/D. Sustained higher prices will assuredly lift output over time, but even short cycle shale has its limitations.  Large multi-pad wells that are the most economic can take up to a year and a half to bring online.

Markets have not really repriced the odds of the regional conflict spreading to include Iran directly rather than its proxies. We have noted before the link between the pre-1941 embargo on Japanese oil imports and the current embargo on Iranian exports. The problem is that the U.S. is not offering the Iranian regime a clear path out. Since open conflict would be disastrous, Iran is pursuing asymmetric conflict with plausible deniability. Moreover, the shift from mining tankers in the Gulf to attacking oil infrastructure is a clear ratcheting up. Whether intentional or not, this seems likely to provoke a response. Saudi Arabia’s rulers must be considering right now the type of military response required and whether they even have the capability to deliver it alone.

Public support in the U.S. for another major conflict in the Middle East is low, and the Shale Revolution affords us more geopolitical flexibility. But if the U.S. does not take a military role, the vacuum will force other countries to consider their willingness to risk further disruption to the 20MMB/D coming out of the region.

Middle Eastern energy supplies are more vulnerable to disruption that previously priced in financial markets (i.e. Brent-WTI spread). U.S. energy infrastructure has an important role to play in providing secure energy supplies. The Middle East is headed towards more open conflict between two big adversaries.

Markets seem to have focused so far only on the short term disruption and how long Saudi Aramco will need to restore supply – currently estimated at a few weeks, although on the weekend it was said to be only days.

We think this attack requires a significant recalibration of supply security. American energy assets look very attractive.

America Offers Safer Energy

Saturday’s surprise attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abaqaiq oil facility in Buqyaq has sent crude oil prices sharply higher. There are estimates of up to 5.7 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) of lost output. For perspective, the last two big drops in crude oil, in 2008 and 2014-16, were caused by around 2% excess supply. The lost Saudi output, half of what that country produces, represents around 5% of world demand.

It’s unclear how long it will take to repair the damage. Estimates are at least several weeks. Saudi Arabia has assured buyers that deliveries will be augmented from crude kept in storage.

Regardless of where crude prices go, owning energy infrastructure in the U.S. looks a bit smarter (see U.S. Insulated From Possible

Landscape image of a oil well pumpjack wiith an early morning golden sunrise and American USA red White and Blue Flag background.

Supply Shock After Saudi Attack). U.S. production is decentralized, making it virtually impossible for a single attack anywhere to disrupt a significant portion of output. And while terrorism remains a relentless threat, the U.S. has shown it is able to protect its vital assets.

Although crude oil prices will initially provide a lift to the perennially downtrodden midstream energy infrastructure sector, we think investors will reassess sources of energy supply based on stability. This should provide more enduring support to a business that is wholly based in North America, far removed from the world’s unstable regions and increasingly the world’s marginal producer.

Much of the world’s energy comes from politically unstable parts of the world (see Investors Look Warily at the Persian Gulf). The Shale Revolution has provided America with more geopolitical flexibility to pursue its aims without worrying about OPEC cutting supplies (see U.S. Plays Its Foreign Policy Hand Freed From Oil). Growing domestic production gives America greater control over its economy (see Shale Security).

Midstream energy infrastructure, which supports American energy independence, is a clear beneficiary of the weekend’s news.

Momentum Crash Supports Pipeline Sector

Breaking News — Drone attack disables Saudi crude ouput

Although we don’t normally highlight the favorable geopolitics of U.S. midstream energy infrastructure, this news does emphasize that much of the world’s crude oil comes from unstable regions. See WSJ story U.S. Insulated From Possible Supply Shock After Saudi Attack

Momentum Crash Supports Pipeline Sector

The action in equity markets last week was beneath the surface. Daily moves in the S&P500 were unremarkable, but a sharp turn in momentum stocks caused lots of churning.

The resulting shift into value was welcome news for energy investors. Momentum and Value had tracked each other reasonably well for the past year until May, when Momentum began to outperform.

Eventually midstream energy infrastructure (defined as the American Energy Independence Index, AEITR), and Value both weakened during the summer. By late August, Momentum had opened up a 14% gap against Value over the prior five months, with similar outperformance against AEITR.

As portfolio managers in the pipeline sector we often struggle to explain the moves in the stocks we own. Apart from earnings season, macroeconomic developments and fund flows dominate. This past period was especially hard to understand because 2Q19 earnings reports were generally as expected.

In September this trend has reversed (see Drop in hot stocks stirs memories of ‘quant quake’), for reasons no clearer than those that preceded it. Value is 8% ahead of Momentum since Labor Day, lifting the AEITR with it.

What’s behind this? Large pools of capital are deployed based on factor bets like Momentum and Value, relying on research that ascribes long term equity returns to them. Momentum has been outperforming Value for several years – since the peak in oil in 2014, which partly explains negative sentiment towards the energy sector since then.

During the summer, the difference in relative performance jumped sharply, leading to the recent correction. Perhaps slowing global growth has caused a reassessment of high fliers. It increasingly looks as if trade tariffs, which are simply import taxes, are spreading a chill across the world economy.

Momentum has slipped 9% against Value since August 29. This is an unusually fast correction. In 2016, Value outperformed Momentum by 10%. This lifted MLPs, with the Alerian MLP Index returning 18% that year.

If Value starts to regain favor, investors will find plenty of cheap stocks among midstream energy infrastructure.

Blackstone — Tallgrass

Two weeks ago Blackstone offered to acquire the 56% of Tallgrass Energy (TGE) it didn’t already own. The $19.50 per share price was below the $22.47 at which Blackstone had bought 44% earlier this year. But the sideletter allowing TGE management to sell at $26.25, regardless of the price received by other TGE shareholders, is unethical.

As we noted in Blackstone and Tallgrass Further Discredit the MLP Model, the deal exposed an ethical gulf between the prevailing standards at asset managers and the public companies we invest in. If we treated our investors the way TGE proposes to, our careers would be brief.

What’s surprising is the silence among other TGE investors as well as sell-side analysts. Few wish to risk upsetting either Blackstone or Tallgrass by pointing out the obvious. This failure to speak out is itself a disservice to clients.

Although there have been no further announcements since the proposal was made public, TGE’s stock has edged above the deal price. Some traders are betting that Blackstone will sweeten its offer. If that turns out to be the case, we’ll be happy to have helped.

We are invested in TGE

Climate Promises from Politicans: America Will Do Better

Over 60% of U.S. liquid hydrocarbon production comes via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).  This includes 7.75 million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) of crude oil (total 12.4 MMB/D), and three  MMB/D of Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs, including propane and butane) out of five in total. In addition, shale natural gas production  is 68.5 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D) from fracking, three quarters of our 91 BCF/D total.

Presidential primaries invite bold promises, and Elizabeth Warren does not disappoint with her pledge to ban all fracking in the U.S., on her first day in office no doubt.

If Warren does become president, such an executive order would reflect democracy in action. So her position is either (1) disingenuous, since such an economically ruinous move is implausible, or (2) reckless, because of the economic consequences.

Presidents are not Emperors. The 2005 Energy Policy Act among others restricts presidents from choosing industries by executive action. Legislation would be required by Congress, although presidential persistence can overcome constitutional checks and balances. The wall being built on our southern border without explicit Congressional funding is an example. Improbable campaign promises can become policy.

Oil markets would adjust to the loss of 10% of global supply, even though excess supply is estimated at only a fifth of this. Warren’s presidency  would open with sharply higher gasoline prices for all Americans, with an outsized impact on lower-income voters many of whom vote Democrat. During the 2008 financial crisis, crude consumption fell by 1.5% and oil fell from $144 to $34 within five months. From 2014-16 crude oil collapsed from $100 per barrel to under $30, and the supply excess was estimated at around 1.5-2%.  Given a sudden supply shortage five times as big, a tank of gas might cost as much as a lightly used iphone.

Natural gas is the biggest source of electricity generation. Heating and a/c bills would soar. Acting like a regressive tax hike, a fracking ban would slow growth and drive unemployment higher. The US$ would weaken, further exacerbating the increase in our trade deficit from importing more crude oil. It would represent a substantial transfer of American wealth to OPEC and Russia.

Many positions taken during primaries are later ditched during the national election. Warren’s sound-bite policy is less extreme than Bernie Sanders, who believes, “Fossil fuel executives should be criminally prosecuted for the destruction they have knowingly caused.” Although this falls short of the “lock ‘em up” characterization of his position, it still represents a chill for those legally supplying what the market wants. Why aren’t energy consumers as culpable as suppliers?

Deep disappointment seems inevitable – most likely for environmental extremists when such promises turn out to be unattainable, but possibly for the rest of us if a new administration seriously pursues them.

The U.S. economy is decarbonizing, at around 2.3% p.a. over the past 25 years. This means the ratio of CO2 produced to GDP has been falling at this rate. The figures for other developed countries generally fall between 2% and 3% p.a. The global decarbonization rate since 2000 is 1.6% p.a.

PwC estimates that achieving an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 (consistent with goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) would require a global decarbonization rate of 6.4%, four times the current rate.

Estimates of Warren’s plan suggest a 9.9% rate of annual improvement, while Bernie Sanders’ requires 15.2%. Sharply curtailed supply of traditional energy is a cornerstone for all Democrat candidates.

Although climate change extremists focus on transportation, in 2018 in the U.S. this was 28.3 quadrillion BTUs of energy consumption, 28% of the total. Industry used around 26% of our energy, for the production of chemicals, plastics, refining, construction, steel, fertilizer, cement and glass. Much industrial use of energy requires high heat or the chemical composition of fossil fuels, qualities not available with renewables.

The curtailment of steel production has led to one estimate that Sanders’ proposal would require the removal of 200 million cars from U.S. roads by 2030.

Solutions need to be sound-bite ready, and fit into Twitter’s 280-character limit. This leaves little room for thoughtful discussions of what kind of economy we’ll have with dramatically less steel, glass, cement and fertilizer; why we’re not phasing out every coal plant in favor of natural gas; on the case for common standards and commissioning of nuclear power; and sharply higher R&D into cleaner ways to use what works, which is overwhelmingly fossil fuels.

The world’s cattle produce 5 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually, only slightly less than the U.S. Phasing out cows (meaning ending their reproduction) would eliminate this source of emissions within twenty years (see The Bovine Green Dream), an outlandish suggestion that is nonetheless more practical than the Democrat policy proposals on offer.

There’s no thoughtful discussion of the necessary trade-offs, weighing risks, costs and outcomes. Discourse consists of brief sentences of one and two syllable words. The U.S accounts for just 14% of global emissions. The Democratic primaries have put the most thoughtless solutions on display. Americans deserve better — we should all hope that such extreme policies are abandoned in favor of more thoughtful ones.

MLPs: Five Years On, Cheaper Than Ever

The end of August was the five year anniversary of the peak in MLPs. Had it not been for the distraction caused last week by a more compelling story (see Blackstone and Tallgrass Further Discredit the MLP Model), we would have already noted this milestone.

The Alerian MLP index, albeit much changed and diminished since August 2014, remains 38% lower including dividends. We won’t repeat the reasons, which are familiar to regular readers (see It’s the Distributions, Stupid!).

Pipeline stocks have certainly labored under some poor management decisions (see Kinder Morgan: Still Paying for Broken Promises) and self-dealing (see Why Energy Transfer Can’t Get Respect). However the Blackstone take-private offer for Tallgrass (TGE) plays out, this unfortunate episode has confirmed the wariness of many investors for the weak governance of publicly traded partnerships.

But the broad energy sector also languishes, now representing less than 4.5% of the S&P500. The S&P energy ETF (XLE) is 42% off its highs of June 2014. The Van Eck oil services ETF (OIH) is down a staggering 83%. The sustained weakness in the pipeline sector has to be considered against this backdrop. Even Exxon Mobil (XOM) is 25% off its April 2014 high, and yields over 5%. For the first time in the history of the S&P500, XOM is not in the top ten.

Energy investors are keenly aware that, although their sector bottomed in February 2016 along with crude oil, the broader equity market has risen over 50% from that low point. The S&P500 is within 2% of new all-time highs.

Holders of midstream energy infrastructure stocks are clearly not momentum investors. But they have identified relative value – the chart below highlights that relative P/Es compared with the S&P500 favor MLPs more clearly than during the financial crisis, or even the February 2016 low which capped an even bigger drop than in 2008-9.

MLP Valuation Discount to the SP500

P/Es rarely even figure in evaluations of MLPs, since earnings are often distorted by depreciation charges that don’t reflect the actual change in value of owned assets. So it’s notable that even using earnings numbers that are usually lower than Distributable Cash Flow (DCF), the sector is cheap.

In discussions with investors, we continue to find that growth in free cash flow is the strongest bullish case. The chart below (also see The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher) is based on the American Energy Independence Index, which provides broad exposure to North American corporations along with a few large MLPs. Existing assets are generating increased DCF, and investment in new projects peaked last year. We revise these projections quarterly based on guidance during earnings calls, and so far the numbers are approximately tracking what we expected when we first projected FCF in April.

Pipeline Sector Free Cash Flow Soars

There can be few areas of investing as unloved as energy. Investors may be put off by past distribution cuts, poor capital allocation decisions, questionable governance or climate change (see  Our Fossil Fuel Future (With a Bit More Solar and Wind)).

In response: distributions are rising; growth capex has peaked; most of the sector is now corporations, with more robust governance; and serious long term forecasts recognize that fossil fuels will provide 80% or so of the world’s energy for decades to come.

Diverse Sources of Energy Needed

Valuations and growing cashflows support a recovery in prices.

We are invested in TGE.

SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund.  To learn more about the Fund,  please click here.

SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).

Blackstone and Tallgrass Further Discredit the MLP Model

​To be an SEC-registered asset manager is to submit to extensive rules of behavior, all with the objective of protecting the clients. Where a portfolio manager invests personally alongside her clients, creating a desirable alignment of interests, regulations require that the client’s interests are placed ahead of the manager’s. The asset manager has a fiduciary obligation to the owners of the capital under management, and a web of regulations exists to this end. CFA charterholders agree to additional obligations regarding ethical behavior and the primacy of clients’ interests.

The recent offer from Blackstone (BX) to acquire the 56% of Tallgrass Energy LP (TGE) it doesn’t already own at $19.50 per share has revealed an ethical gulf between prevailing standards at the providers of capital versus the users. No SEC-registered asset manager could do to its investors what TGE management is doing to theirs.

When BX acquired 44% of TGE in January at $22.43, a regulatory filing of a sideletter outlined an unusual arrangement under which, if BX bought the rest of TGE within a year, TGE management could sell their shares at $26.25.

In April, TGE CEO David Dehaemers fielded questions as to whether this arrangement created a risk that BX might take advantage of weakness in TGE shares to buy the rest of the company cheaply. He was adamant that, “…there is no intention of Blackstone doing anything here untoward.” Dehaemers went on to note that, “I’ve still got $50 million and invested in that. And that is from money that I put in this thing. It’s not restricted stock in fact I’ve never gotten a share of restricted stock in the last seven years at this thing.

“And so I didn’t leave $50 million in this thing to lose money and that just simply [isn’t] going to happen.”

These comments led investors in TGE to erroneously believe that they were invested in TGE alongside Dehaemers.

TGE’s stock fell sharply in August, creating the conditions for BX to acquire the rest of the company. Perversely, the weaker TGE’s stock the more likely was BX to attempt the buyout. Since the buyout triggered the $26.25 sale price, Dehaemers and other senior management actually benefited from the stock falling.

Although the $19.50 “take private” offer was 36% above its price the day before, it was below where TGE had traded all year until the sharp drop in August.

One might initially regard the elevated price for management’s TGE shares as nothing more than a bonus for selling the company. But because the $26.25 price is independent of the price at which the company is sold, the sideletter breaks the alignment of interests that exists when management owns shares alongside investors. The price received by other TGE investors no longer impacts the management team’s economics.

Nobody has suggested TGE deliberately drove their stock lower. But management clearly had little incentive to arrest the decline. Questions on capex plans and recontracting of pipelines received frustratingly vague answers. A management team incented to drive the stock price up might have been more forthcoming. Clearly BX, as an insider, saw little to concern them in the company’s recent operating performance.

We’ve long liked David Dehaemers and what he has achieved at TGE. We’ve talked to him several times in the past. But we are deeply disappointed at this turn of events, which at best reflects a serious judgment lapse on his part.

TGE is a partnership, which means it has much weaker governance than if it was a corporation. Sideletters such as this are legal, whereas it’s hard to imagine such a device being employed if TGE was a regular c-corp. It seems that investors in partnerships cannot rely on management promises that they have “skin in the game”, and that shared outcomes are assured.

The energy sector already struggles to demonstrate responsible stewardship of capital. The weak corporate governance of MLPs has dissuaded many institutions from investing in them. Some, like TGE, have elected to “check the box” so as to be taxed like a corporation while retaining the partnership structure. Although this improves tax reporting by providing holders with a 1099 rather than the disliked K-1, the governance weaknesses remain.

The BX-TGE episode will tarnish all the partnerships that remain in midstream energy infrastructure. Investors have little reason to hope for a high-priced acquisition, since it seems management can negotiate a different price for themselves. What’s to stop Kelcy Warren selling control of Energy Transfer (ET) in exchange for the acquisition of just the management team’s shares at a substantial premium to what’s offered the other investors? It seems there’s very little, which alters the risk/return profile.

Partnerships trade at a discount, and this shows why.

In a podcast interview with Alerian’s Kenny Feng last year, Dehaemers recounted a time earlier in his career when he wanted to relocate his family back to Kansas City, so his two boys could attend a Jesuit school. So he must know as well as anyone that unethical behavior isn’t excused simply by pointing to its prior disclosure, as is the defence of the BX-TGE sideletter.

It shouldn’t be the case that the asset managers who invest in companies like TGE adhere to higher ethical standards than the companies do themselves, but that is how things work. The list of publicly traded partnerships that can be relied upon to refrain from such moves is a short one. Choosing to pay corporate taxes while retaining the partnership structure can only be justified by managements that desire the weaker protections afforded investors, compared with corporations.

Rich Kinder did much to build the MLP model with Kinder Morgan (KMI) before breaking his “promises made, promises kept” pledge on distributions (see Kinder Morgan: Still Paying for Broken Promises). Five years later, income seeking investors have still not forgotten. David Dehaemers worked under Kinder at KMI, who was at Enron before that. A substantial portion of America’s energy infrastructure emerged from Enron’s energy business. Jeff Skilling’s record of broken promises persists.

TGE’s board has an opportunity to restore some trust, depending on how they respond to BX’s offer.

We are invested in ET, KMI and TGE

SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund.  To learn more about the Fund,  please click here.

SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).

Private Equity Sees Value in Unloved Pipelines

Last week the Financial Times wrote about the dwindling conviction of believers in the Shale Revolution (see Why US energy investors are experiencing a crisis of faith). Religion is an appropriate metaphor – secular values such as Enterprise Value to EBITDA or forward free cash flow yield have offered scant protection. To invest in energy today is to be a Christian thrown into Rome’s Coliseum.

In January Blackstone Infrastructure Partners (BIP), invested $3.3BN for a controlling interest in Tallgrass Energy (TGE) which, following a simplification of its GP/MLP structure left Blackstone owning 44% of the company. On Tuesday night TGE disclosed a take-private offer from BIP for the rest of TGE. It’s a measure of how poorly TGE’s stock has performed that buying the remaining 56% would cost $200MM less than BIP’s original investment even after the 35% premium embedded in the proposal.

The good news came with a sour taste. A previously agreed sideletter between BIP and TGE came to light revealing a sweetheart deal for management. In the event of a take-private transaction like this one, management can sell its shares at $26.25, not the $19.50 agreed for all the public investors. A cynic might conclude that TGE allowed uncertainty about their capex plans and recontracting on pipelines to weigh on the stock price, inviting BIP to acquire the balance below their earlier deal price while paying insiders 35% more. Energy sector executives provide ample material for critics who see scant evidence of a fiduciary mindset.

Returning to negative sentiment, retail investors struggle with the failure of growing oil and gas production to lift the prices of midstream energy infrastructure, with its toll-model supposedly fairly insulated from commodity prices. Public market valuations differ from where private equity sees things. It turns out  BIP is also puzzled but happy to exploit the opportunity.

They’re not the only private equity investor to have misjudged the depth of public market antipathy to energy. Last year Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) invested $3.125BN to acquire a controlling interest in Enlink Midstream (ENLC). Following their GP/MLP simplification a few months later, GIP owned 40% of ENLC.

Today ENLC’s market cap has sunk to $3.6BN, creating a paper loss for GIP of almost $1.7BN. Former CEO Barry Davis returned, replacing Mike Garberding who had been promoted from CFO less than a year earlier. It’s not just retail investors who have bought into undervalued pipeline stocks too soon.

Earlier this year private equity firm IFM Investors bought Buckeye Partners for $6.5BN, a 32% premium to the market price.

Goldman Sachs recently noted that around $250BN in private equity “dry powder” is dedicated to infrastructure and natural resources. It won’t all find its way into the U.S. pipeline sector, but the American Energy Independence Index, which broadly reflects the sector, now has a market cap of around $450BN. The float-adjusted figure, removing shares held by management that don’t trade, is $372BN. GIP is raising a fourth fund targeting $17.5BN, undeterred by the paper loss GIP III has taken on ENLC.

Available Private Equity Capital

The end of August marked the five year anniversary of the peak in the Alerian MLP Index. It remains 39% off its high. Hinds Howard, who follows the sector for CBRE Clarion Securities, notes more than 80 constituents have been removed from the index. MLPs have steadily become less representative of midstream energy infrastructure. The Alerian MLP Index (AMZ) has a market cap of around $250BN ($150BN float-adjusted).

The FT article blamed the slump in part on poor spending discipline. By way of confirmation, PDC Energy’s (PDCE) recently announced acquisition of SRC Energy (SRCI) anticipates annual savings of $50MM in General and Administrative (G&A) expense. Considering SRC’s entire G&A was $39MM last year and the company’s market cap is $1.1BN, this is not a company with a parsimonious culture towards corporate overhead. Both stocks rose on the news.

Investors want further consolidation in the energy sector, including midstream. There are more senior energy executives than we need.

We are invested in ENLC and TGE.

SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund.  To learn more about the Fund,  please click here.

SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).

Hopes for a Trade Deal Slipping

Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the “…Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises…” Congressional control over tariffs has never been so strong since.

The Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act of 1934 granted President Roosevelt the authority to adjust tariffs and to negotiate bilateral trade agreements without prior congressional approval. Other legislation increased the Administration’s control over trade, including the Trade Act of 1974 which allowed the President to impose a 15% tariff if imports threatened national security. There’s much to recommend a single decision maker heading up such negotiations. It should lead to more predictable, less capricious discourse than one requiring congressional approval. For decades, it’s how the U.S. has conducted trade negotiations, and it’s broadly worked.

In recent months, President Trump has demonstrated the full range of options afforded a president to manage trade. Updates on the progress of negotiations with China have been responsible for much of the recent market volatility.

An interesting chart from Goldman Sachs divides the three year performance of the S&P500 into two periods – a steady uptrend that prevailed from Trump’s surprise election until the first imposition of steel tariffs early last year, followed by a modest rise punctuated by higher volatility.

Trade War Increases Market Volatility Lowers Returns

A second Goldman chart infers the market’s estimate of a trade deal by comparing baskets of stocks with sharply different exposure to China. Based on this, market expectations of a trade deal are low, and Goldman duly do not expect one before next year’s election.

Market Places Low Odds on Trade Deal

Stocks are cheap relative to bonds (see Stocks Offer Bond Investors an Opening). It seems self-evident that Trump’s re-election prospects are better without trade disputes slowing growth, and therefore rational for him to seize a deal. The trade deficit with China is already falling (see Trade Wars: End in Sight), so the opportunity to declare victory and reach agreement is a real one.

Low expectations of an agreement coupled with relatively cheap stocks mean a big rally would follow.

But this analysis isn’t unique, and market participants are looking beyond it. Current pricing of no deal before the election either means Trump won’t seize one, or China will decline to offer a graceful exit from a negotiating strategy that hasn’t yet worked.

This brings us back to the issue of which arm of government should control trade negotiations. There’s much to be said for the current structure. Congress is an unwieldy negotiating partner, and myriad parochial interests could easily derail an almost perfect agreement.

If the low expectations of an agreement turn out to be accurate, calls to restore some of the power originally vested in Congress are likely to grow. Senators from both parties have begun advocating for such a change. If protracted trade uncertainty continues into next year, the odds of legislative action will rise.

Paradoxically, such an outcome could well be bullish if it removed much of the trade uncertainty we’re learning to live with. It’s just hard to assess how much intervening market volatility will be required to provoke lawmakers into action.

SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund.  To learn more about the Fund,  please click here.

SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).

Pension Funds Keep Interest Rates Low

The Equity Risk Premium reveals that stocks are cheap relative to bonds (see Stocks Offer Bond Investors an Opening).  A corollary of this insight that bonds are expensive is that you can replicate the return on $100 in ten year treasury notes with a combination of stocks and cash. It relies on a few assumptions, such as an unchanged dividend yield, known dividend growth rate and unchanged tax policy. Because it shows that as little as 13% in equities, with the rest in cash (i.e. a 13/87 barbell) can match the ten year note, it starkly highlights the expense of bonds.

Make Your Own Bond 13_87

Pension funds are large investors, including in fixed income. The OECD estimates that they hold over $8TN in bonds, equal to approximately 10% of the global investment grade bond market. About half is U.S. pension funds.

An interesting blog post by Colin Lloyd (see The Pension Fund Apocalypse)  estimates that the real return on this $8TN in debt is negative.

Pension Allocations OECD 12 Biggest Countries

A consequence is that U.S. pension funds earned a negative real return last year of -3.9%. The S&P500 was -4.4% (nominal), but fixed income didn’t help.

Pension Funds Real Returns

This unsurprising result has worsened with this year’s further drop in bond yields. Although the math of divesting from long term debt is compelling, pension funds face complex restrictions on their asset allocation. For example, U.S. pension funds maintain a 28.1% allocation fixed income, in the certain knowledge of a negative real return. They inexplicably raised their allocation, from 24.9% the prior year.

What should have happened by now is that discerning pension funds shift away from bonds, but so far there’s little evidence of this.

The demand for fixed income from investors such as pension funds is fairly inelastic. Colin Lloyd calculates that the nominal return on bonds over the past century is 4.3%. The regulatory framework assumes that negative real returns can’t persist indefinitely, and that mean reversion will bring higher yields. But the inability or unwillingness of pension funds to lower their exposure makes such a correction less likely.

More flexible investors, such as endowments and foundations, can be more discriminating. But the persistence of low/negative yields, with almost $17TN of sovereign debt now yielding less than zero, shows that demand remains strong.

Bond yields may rise from their recent new lows. But a return to the long run average real return of 2% would require ten year notes to yield 3.5-4%, double their current level. Continued negative real returns and unchanged fixed income allocations will make it harder for pension funds to be fully funded.

It doesn’t have to lead to a crisis, but it’s one reason to expect long term rates will remain low for the foreseeable future. Perversely, for funds that seek to match the cashflows of assets and liabilities, lower interest income can lead to greater bond investments to achieve a required level of cashflow. What’s needed is a relaxation of regulations to allow a more objective rejection of bonds when returns are inadequate.

Pension funds are one reason rates have stayed low.

SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund.  To learn more about the Fund,  please click here.

SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).

Bond Buyers Should Buy Pipeline Stocks

Yields on McDonalds’ Euro-denominated bonds recently joined European sovereign debt in negative territory. It’s a headline writers dream (juicy burgers, not yields…customers and investors pay to do business, etc).

$17TN in publicly traded debt now yields less than zero – 30% of the entire investment grade market. Debates rage about what this means. Bond investors are not accused of being analytically weak – something bad must be over the horizon. As mentioned before, we’re contemplating the idea that such a stubborn retention of fixed income investments reflects a degree of risk aversion towards stocks, for fear of a sharp fall. The searing memories of the financial crisis are within the careers of most market participants. Stocks are always vulnerable to a big sell off. But the preponderance of caution reflected in the scramble for low-risk yet yield-less bonds suggests speculative fever is not rampant. In this view, stocks are cheap.

The energy sector has provided unattractive risk/return of late. It’s why it’s so cheap. One of the reasons for poor sentiment could be climate change. 82% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and the average of serious 20-year forecasts sees this at around 80% in 2040. Reading articles on renewables can consume much of a day, every day, while those expecting the 82% share to stay roughly the same are a rare breed.

If equity valuations on midstream energy infrastructure stocks reflect a widespread belief that oil and gas pipelines will soon be as useful as a VHS recorder, bonds issued by these same companies should offer commensurately high yields.

But they don’t. A review of yields on the investment grade bonds of U.S. issuers in the American Energy Independence Index averages 3.7% (using the weights of the index). Although yields of any kind are hard to obtain nowadays, the 3.9% yield on 2054 bonds issued by Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) suggests a high expectation of being repaid in full. This in turn requires pipelines and related infrastructure to maintain their critical role in America’s energy supply for at least another four decades. EPD’s stock yields over 6%. Its distribution is growing and buybacks are likely. Try and conceive a scenario in which the holder of the 2054 bonds will, over any plausible investment horizon, do better than the equity investor.

Pipeline Stocks Dividends on Bond Yields

Kinder Morgan (KMI) has bonds maturing in 2098, in effect perpetual debt, yielding 5.1%. Although this is modestly higher than the stock’s 4.9% dividend yield, next year’s expected 25% hike will fix that. Although the 2098 bond issue is a tiny $26MM, they have $33BN outstanding, much falling due after 2040. The holders of KMI 2098 bonds no doubt congratulate themselves for doing better than investing in French energy giant Total (TOT), who recently issued perpetual Euro debt at 1.75% (see Blinded by the Bonds). But if they like KMI’s 80 year bonds, they’d have to prefer the equity.

The investment grade issuers in the table represent half of the American Energy Independence Index. Their long dated bonds yield 4.3% — profligate by today’s standards, but nonetheless too low to reflect anything other than confidence of full repayment over the decades ahead. The holders of these bonds must regard equity buyers as having abandoned all reason in allowing dividend yields to drift so high.

If fixed income buyers like midstream energy infrastructure, eventually equity buyers will find reason to follow.

We are invested in EPD and KMI.

SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund.  To learn more about the Fund,  please click here.

SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).