Is Shale Driving Oil Higher?

Could the Shale Revolution be driving oil prices higher? It seems counter-intuitive – the U.S. is on course to be the world’s biggest oil producer by next year. And it was the additional shale supply that led to the 2014-15 oil collapse.

Yet, a growing chorus of industry voices is warning of an impending supply squeeze. This includes the Saudi Energy Minister, Khalid A. Al-Falih, who recently expressed concern about shortages of spare crude oil capacity. Last week David Demshur, CEO of oilfield services company Core Laboratories (CLB) forecast oil at $100 a barrel. He cited declining output in many key conventional plays globally, even while U.S. output is growing strongly. The International Energy Agency added their warning that, “…the world’s spare capacity cushion…might be stretched to the limit.”

Part of the problem relates to supply disruptions. Venezuela’s output continues to plummet because of chronic underinvestment. Renewed sanctions on Iran are impeding their exports sooner than expected. Saudi Arabia has promised to increase output to offset the loss of Iranian crude, but many question their ability to sustain output much above 11 Million Barrels a Day (MMB/D).

Meanwhile, global oil demand is expected to grow at around 1.5-1.7 MMB/D over the next year. Depletion of existing fields, estimated at 3-4 MMB/D annually, is worsening according to some observers. So the world needs at least 4-6 MMB/D of new supply to balance current consumption of around 98 MMB/D. Concern is growing of a shortfall.

Although blaming the Shale Revolution for a looming supply shortage sounds implausible, Shale’s lower risk profile is drawing capital investment away from conventional projects. You can see this in Exxon Mobil’s (XOM) five year plan to commit $50BN to North American oil and gas production. You can also see it in the dramatic decline in the size of large projects. As we’ve noted before (see The Short Cycle Advantage of Shale) conventional oil and gas projects take far longer to return their capital invested than shale projects.

The energy business has always been cyclical for this reason, because of the supply side’s slow response function. Shale’s ability to recalibrate output much more responsively to price can smooth out the cycle, if there’s enough short-cycle supply available. But there isn’t. North America is the major source of such projects and virtually the only source of shale activity. Rising U.S. output is nonetheless insufficient to provide adequate supply.

Conventional projects have always had to consider macro factors, such as global GDP growth, commodity prices and production cost inflation before committing capital. Add to those the likely path of government policies aimed at curbing fossil-fuel related global warming, and the unknown pace of technological improvement with electric vehicles. Today it’s probably as hard as it’s ever been to confidently allocate capital to a conventional oil or gas project with a 10+ year payback horizon.

Moreover, short-cycle projects like Shale lurk in the background, capable of wrecking the market with oversupply, yet able to protect themselves by quickly curtailing production.

This uncertainty is limiting the commitment of capital to conventional projects. If the warnings are prescient, oil prices will rise to a level that induces more investment back in to conventional projects. The market will self-correct. But it’s looking increasingly likely that higher prices will be required in the meantime.

New Pipeline Investment Roars Back

In recent years as MLP investors balked at providing the growth capital sought by midstream energy infrastructure, the biggest companies have been converting to corporations (see MLPs Searching for a New Look). The collapse in MLPs during 2014-15 slowed investment, subsequently causing many of the biggest companies to simplify as they concluded that the MLP investor base was too narrow. This shift away from MLP buyers (mostly older, wealthy Americans) to the global equity investor is evidently working, at least based on one trade group’s forecast of new investment. The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA, not limited to natural gas in spite of their name) lobbies for industry-friendly policies and produces long term forecasts of midstream infrastructure investment in the energy sector. They see a bright future for North America.

Given the renewed focus in recent years on prudent distribution coverage with lower leverage, it’s striking that 2019 is likely to be a record year for investment in new capacity. Following two years of decline as companies grappled with income-seeking investors unwilling to finance growth, in 2017 capex rebounded. The recovery has continued strongly, driven in large part by increasing export capacity for crude oil, Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) and natural gas. The path to American Energy Independence is paved by such investments.

It’s interesting to compare INGAA’s current forecast with their prior one, which we covered two years ago (see There’s More to Pipelines Than Oil). INGAA has modified their format and their forecast period covers a slightly shorter time period. But after adjusting for differences, we find INGAA’s latest projection to be 39% higher than their 2016 Upside Case, at $44BN of annual investment.

It’s a remarkable statement about the resilience of the Shale Revolution and how America’s Energy Renaissance is evolving. INGAA’s prior report reflected the still raw memories of the 2014-15 energy recession, when questions lingered about the sustainability of the new, unconventional production.

Today, with production of crude, natural gas and NGLs all hitting records, there can be little doubt that the industry has shifted to an era of long term growth.

Natural gas continues to command over 50% of new investment. Although movements in crude oil pricing continue to drive short-term sector returns, natural gas remains the more important commodity. Exports, by pipeline to Mexico, and as Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) globally, are both set to rise sharply in the years ahead. Net U.S. LNG exports in 2035 are forecast to reach 12 Billion Cubic feet per Day (BCF/D), from around 1.3 BCF/D currently. Overall, North American natural gas output should rise 2% annually, from 91 BCF/D to 130 BCF/D. Natural gas use in the power sector is also expected to show healthy growth, both as coal-fired plants are retired and as a backup for renewables. We’ve long asserted that natural gas is critical to increased use of renewables, to provide baseload power for when it’s not sunny and windy.

NGLs receive far less attention than crude oil or natural gas, but ethane and propane are key feedstocks for ethylene and polypropylene (different types of plastics) respectively. U.S. NGL production is expected to double by 2035, to 6.6 MMB/D, with exports also doubling to 2 MMB/D.

Although the U.S. is already energy independent, in that we produce more total energy on a BTU-equivalent basis than we consume, the popular measure relates to crude oil independence. Industry forecasts of the date when the U.S. reaches that milestone generally fall between 2025 and 2030. Because crude oil comes in hundreds of grades, we’ll continue to import the heavy crude favored by U.S. refineries even while net exports triple, from 0.5 MMB/d to 1.5 MMB/D. Another favorable development will be a halving of non-Canadian imports, further lessening our dependency on unstable regions and unfriendly governments. More than 100% of the growth in U.S. crude production is expected to come from the Permian, Niobrara and Bakken formations.

Given this outlook, it’s clear why many large MLPs have converted to corporations. They need a financial structure that will support growth plans. Investment bankers will find much in INGAA’s report to get them excited, since capex implies ongoing debt and equity issuance. For investors though, the new projects will need to generate a return above their cost of capital. That’s what will determine whether INGAA’s report is truly exciting.

Last week the corporate-heavy American Energy Independence Index added another 1% to its outperformance of the MLP-only Alerian MLP Index, reaching a 9% difference since the March FERC decision cast doubt on the MLP structure for certain companies.

Old Style MLP Funds Get Left Behind

Although MLPs are cheap by historical standards, the persistence of their attractive valuation should prompt observers to think a little harder. The almost 5% yield spread between the Alerian MLP Index and ten year treasuries is 1.5% wider than the 20-year average of 3.5%. However, the MLP yield spread to treasuries has been historically wide since 2013.

What an investor regards as a cheap security is, for the issuer, an expensive source of capital. Market gyrations create opportunities, but a temporary mispricing can evolve into a permanent one. The buyers and issuers of such securities are in effect debating whether such a shift has occurred.

The list of companies concluding that a shift has occurred includes all those who have converted from the traditional MLP structure with a General Partner (GP) earning Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs). In 2014 Kinder Morgan (KMI) became the first large MLP to decide that something fundamental had changed in the MLP investor, and converted to a corporation. As regular readers know, we believe the Shale Revolution upset the prior business model. Before hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling unlocked America’s enormous reserves of hydrocarbons, energy infrastructure companies had a limited need to reinvest profits.  Our existing network of pipelines, processing facilities and storage was adequate to the task. Hence, MLPs distributed most of their cashflow in a tax-advantaged form, which attracted income-seeking investors.

In recent years, unconventional oil and gas extraction from previously untapped areas has required new infrastructure. Financing this disrupted the high payout model, leading to distribution cuts which alienated long-time investors (see Will MLP Distribution Cuts Pay Off?).

KMI was followed by many other large MLPs (see What Kinder Morgan Tells Us About MLPs), eventually including Targa Resources (TRGP), Oneok (OKE), Tallgrass (TEGP), Williams Companies (WMB) and Enbridge (ENB). Although there were some differences in structure, all these companies ultimately sought access to the wide pool of global equity investors. They’ve moved beyond the older, wealthy Americans who had long held MLPs for income and didn’t mind the K-1s. This narrow pool of buyers was not suited to finance growth businesses.

The MLPs that converted to corporations, including those listed above, have explicitly acknowledged this inadequacy of the traditional MLP investor. Many of those companies who remain MLPs are nonetheless mindful that the structure may not always suit them. Crestwood (CEQP) CEO Bob Phillips has said, of conversion to a corporation, that, “we won’t be the first, but we won’t be the last either.” Every MLP CFO is regularly asked about their structure.

On the other side of the Corp vs MLP debate are the managers of MLP-dedicated funds, including the Alerian MLP Fund (AMLP), and numerous other tax-burdened vehicles (see MLP Funds Made for Uncle Sam).

While the biggest MLPs are converting to corporations, it isn’t easy for these specialized funds to follow them. A taxable MLP fund that invested in a taxable corporation, delivering taxable returns to investors, would look absurd. But converting an MLP-dedicated fund to a RIC-compliant structure would require dumping 75% of their portfolio in order to comply with the 25% limit on MLPs. This would be hugely disruptive. With over $50BN in various poorly structured vehicles, they must all be hoping that none of their peers decide to become RIC-compliant, because it would depress MLP prices and lead fund investors to fear that others would follow (see The Uncertain Future of MLP-Dedicated Funds).

Faced with unpalatable choices, the managers of such funds naturally enough like their MLP-only approach.

As the chart shows, since the FERC ruling in March which caused many to reconsider the MLP structure (see FERC Ruling Pushes Pipelines Out of MLPs), diversified energy infrastructure has handily beaten MLPs. The American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) consists mostly of U.S. and Canadian corporations as well as having 20% allocated to the largest MLPs.  Driven by its heavy exposure to corporations, the AEITR has delivered an 8% higher return than the Alerian MLP Index. Moreover, investors in AMLP and other MLP-dedicated funds have to contend with the corporate tax drag which further impedes their return. The broader investor base available to corporations means better liquidity, which in turn attracts additional capital. Clearly, the companies that converted from MLPs can feel their choice was vindicated. Even Alerian CEO Kenny Feng concedes that the midstream sector, “…is in a bit of an identity crisis.”

The lesson here is that when a sector stays cheap for an extended period of time, perhaps something has fundamentally changed. Along with many of the largest energy infrastructure corporations, we think it has.

We are invested in CEQP, ENB, KMI, OKE, TEGP, TRGP, WMB.

We are short AMLP.

How to Profit From MLPs Overnight

A few months ago the NYTimes ran an interesting piece on the difference between intra-day and overnight returns on the stock market. The article compared a strategy of buying on the open and selling every day at the close (“IntraDay”), with a strategy of buying on the close and selling the next morning at the open (“Overnight”). Using the S&P500 ETF (SPY), they found that the returns to the Overnight strategy easily beat the IntraDay one.

We looked at the figures ourselves using SPY back to 1993, and while we came up with different numbers the pattern is clear. The NYTimes piece omitted dividends, which would always accrue to the Overnight Strategy and not to IntraDay, since you have to own a security at the close of business on the record date to earn the dividend. So in this case and the one below, Overnight returns will be even better by the amount of the annual dividend.

The stock market is full of patterns, and identifying a profitable one takes far more than simply discovering one that’s worked in the past. For instance, the relative advantage of Overnight over IntraDay on SPY has declined over the years, probably because the hedge funds who look for these things long ago found it and started exploiting it. The best results came in the years either side of the bubble (1998-2002). Since the IntraDay strategy is by definition a day trade, the persistent success of Overnight versus IntraDay back then is probably a tangible measure of day traders gradually ceding their capital to more sophisticated participants.

It’s also important to identify a reason for any anomaly. A series of rainy Sundays tells you nothing about next weekend’s weather (correlation versus causality). There needs to exist some economic reason for the anomaly for it to continue. Is there a reason to expect persistence in the Overnight versus IntraDay phenomenon, even though the margin has diminished? The NYTimes article speculates that buying in the morning offers traders some ability to respond to adversity during the day, and that closing out a long position in the afternoon protects against an inability to immediately react to an overnight event causing losses. Since humans continue to be the ultimate investment decision makers, this is a plausible explanation.

Because MLPs are more retail-dominated than the broader stock market, human foibles are more likely to show up there. The data doesn’t go back as far as SPY, but we looked at Overnight versus IntraDay using AMLP, which launched in 2010. The superiority of Overnight is far more significant than with SPY. Although AMLP has lost 29% of its value before distributions since 2010, the Overnight strategy grew by almost 150% while IntraDay lost 70% of its value. It looks as if MLP investors bounce out of bed full of optimism, only to have those positive feelings ground down by a sector that has regularly spent the trading day selling off from the open.

This means that if you’re considering investing in the sector, you may want to wait until the afternoon. Buyers tend to execute their intentions early. For this group, caffeine-fuelled exuberance gradually gives way to low blood-sugar despondency. After lunch, your buy order will face less competition. In energy infrastructure, it seems, your money really does work harder for you at night.

Put another way, a strategy of shorting AMLP intra-day would have generated a positive return of 150% before transactions costs over the past seven years. Unfortunately, transactions costs of even 0.025% per trade (i.e. 0.05% daily) wipe out the profit. AMLP remains a good short (see MLP Funds Made for Uncle Sam) because of its structural deficiencies, but bad as they are they’re not sufficiently catastrophic to support a day-trading, active shorting strategy.

We are short AMLP

Energy Infrastructure Stability Should Encourage More Buying

Volatility is not the investor’s friend. Some will immediately take issue with this – volatility caused by falling prices can mean opportunity, and volatile rising prices are surely welcome. While true, investments that gyrate cause investor stress which often leads to poorly timed sell decisions. Although a company’s long-term profitability should be more important, the downside of liquid equity markets is that they offer a constant evaluation of your decisions.

For many years before the Shale Revolution took hold, MLPs were known for stable, attractive yields. Companies paying out 90% of their Distributable Cashflow found income-seeking investors. This idyllic relationship suffered a nasty break-up once growth opportunities led to reduced distributions. Although justified, in order to lower leverage and fund new projects (see Will MLP Distribution Cuts Pay Off?), many investors felt betrayed.

As investors recall only too well, the result was a collapse in MLP prices bigger than occurred during the 2008 Financial Crisis. Midstream infrastructure businesses responded by strengthening balance sheets and, in many cases, converting to corporations. Older, wealthy Americans attracted to stable, tax-deferred MLP distributions are a poor match for growth businesses. The narrowness of the investor base, combined with uncertainty over how FERC will implement its revised policies on cost of service pipeline contracts (see FERC Ruling Pushes Pipelines Out of MLPs), have convinced most of the biggest energy infrastructure companies to organize as corporations. This makes their stock available to a far wider set of buyers.

For years, MLP prices were roughly as volatile as the S&P500. This relationship broke down in 2014 when the Energy sector endured its own bear market, leading to substantial performance divergence between the two.

But there are signs that the lower volatility of the past is returning. Companies are continuing to reduce leverage. 4X Debt/EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) is now preferred to 5X. Financing of growth projects is far less reliant on issuing public equity. Distribution coverage is going up, even at the near term expense of distribution growth. Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) last year told investors to expect slower distribution hikes so they could redirect cash towards attractive projects. It’s worth noting that the high volatility of 2016 (defined as average daily moves of >1% over the prior year) is historically rare, occurring only 8% of the time since 1996.

Perhaps most importantly, the shift to a corporate structure is dramatically broadening the investor base, and this added stability is further reducing the sector’s volatility. The American Energy Independence Index provides broad exposure to North American energy infrastructure, with 80% corporations and only 20% in the biggest MLPs . It has 16% less volatility than the Alerian MLP Index, a meaningful improvement.

Given the well-established trend of larger MLPs to convert to corporations, this metric is likely to continue pointing away from an MLP-focused approach to the sector. As volatility returns to the lower levels that have predominated over the past 20-odd years, it’s likely that returns will also improve.

Why Electric Cars Help the Shale Revolution

A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to Texas and Louisiana, where he met with many contacts and friends in the energy infrastructure sector. In-person discussions and site visits can often leave a more powerful impression than reviewing events from a distance. My friend, an experienced investor, returned with his already optimistic view on the Shale Revolution strongly reaffirmed.

Some of the charts below illustrate why. Permian region oil output barely dipped in 2014-15 during the collapse in crude pricing. The widely described drilling efficiencies lowered break-evens (see America’s Path To Energy Independence: The Shale Revolution), and as the oil price recovered, so did production.

Today, Permian output is visually quite striking, rising at an increasing rate. This higher growth rate is what’s causing the infrastructure bottlenecks. Year-on-year increases of 0.8 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) were not obvious based on recent history and clearly few were ready. This is why the WTI basis between Midland, a collection hub for Permian crude, and Houston, recently reached $20 per barrel. There’s insufficient pipeline capacity to move the crude (pipeline tariffs are typically $1-$3 per barrel).

Clearly, even crude by rail (typically $7-$10 per barrel) can’t solve the problem, since the basis trades even wider than this, at the $20 cost of moving the marginal barrel. Trucks and truckers ($10-$20 per barrel or more) are in high demand, and because new pipelines are likely to be available late next year, large investments in truck fleets look unattractive given that the problem is temporary. Fortune Magazine’s Lone Star Rising provides a great feel for the local effects of the current oil boom.

Moving the associated natural gas that is often produced with crude oil in the Permian is also hitting infrastructure limitations. In fact, it’s likely that any moderation in crude output will be caused by waiting for the infrastructure to catch up. Permian natural gas is delivered to the Waha hub, and its basis versus the Henry Hub benchmark looks set to widen from $1 per Million Cubic Feet (MMCF) to $2. With natural gas trading at under $3, it’s not inconceivable that there may be no bid at Waha, a possibility mentioned more than once by energy executives at the Orlando MLP conference recently. Oil producers are hoping that regulators in Texas will allow more flaring of natural gas in the interim.

As a result, the U.S. has some of the cheapest natural gas in the world. Exports of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) are currently 3.6 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D). The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects LNG exports will rise sharply to 9.6 BCF/D by the end of 2019, reaching 13 BCF/D by mid-decade. The growing global trade is causing a shortage of specialized LNG tankers.

Although the Shale Revolution is a U.S. phenomenon, its impact is being felt around the world. Global crude oil demand of around 98 MMB/D is growing at 1.5 MMB/D annually. Less attention is given to depletion of existing oil fields, which is commonly estimated at 3-4%, or 3-4MMB/D. New supply needs to cover this shortfall as well as meet new demand, which means the world needs 4.5-5.5 MMB/D of additional output every year.

Wood Mackenzie recently forecast that decline rates would reach 6.3% for non-OPEC, non-U.S. shale, within three years. They expect U.S. production growth to be triple that of the next biggest country between now and 2025. However, even the most optimistic forecasts of U.S. output leave the world in need of other, conventional sources of supply to balance the market.

Global oil demand is expected to grow for at least the next couple of decades, albeit it at a slower rate, and it’s widely assumed that Electric Vehicles (EVs) will reduce overall demand. Forecasts from the EIA, the International Energy Agency, Exxon Mobil and Wood Mackenzie are all broadly similar in this regard.

An unusual view, but one persuasively made by my partner Henry Hoffman, is that EVs are a huge positive for the U.S. shale business – and not simply because their need for electricity will drive demand for natural gas. Since conventional oil projects take many years to return capital invested (they are “long-cycle”), their investment decisions needs to consider the evolution of EVs and how they might impact long term oil demand and pricing.

EV adoption rates are uncertain, and conventional oil projects are exposed to an EV upside case which will, in some instances, make pursuing them too risky. Shale producers need give little consideration to EVs, because the short-cycle nature of their pay-off is well short of the timeframe over which EVs may have an impact. Because shale wells return cash invested typically within a couple of years, production can be hedged in the futures market. Such wells have very sharp decline rates, so oil demand even five years in the future is barely relevant to today’s investment decision.

Uncertainty about the rate of improvement in EV technology clearly hinders 10-20 year oil investments, which plays to the advantage of the U.S. shale producer. This is not a view that’s widely held, yet it’s probably already having an effect (see Why Shale Upends Conventional Thinking). It strikes me as a really big idea, one that is likely to depress conventional exploration for many years, keeping crude prices higher and underpinning continued growth in U.S. shale. It was almost certainly a factor in Exxon Mobil’s (XOM) announcement earlier this year of a five year, $50BN investment in North American oil and gas production (see The Positives Behind Exxon Mobil’s Earnings). The entry of the biggest integrated oil companies into shale will lead to more predictable output since they won’t be as reliant on external financing. It also validates shale as a long term story.

Betting on higher crude has been a losing trade for hedge funds until recently (see WSJ: As Oil Soars, Few Hedge Funds Are Left to Profit), reflecting conventional wisdom that shale supply will act to rein in higher prices. By contrast, we think crude prices will trend higher over the medium term because of underinvestment in conventional supply. Shale investors should regard growing EV adoption as fundamentally supportive.

For more on America’s Energy Renaissance : The Shale Revolution, watch Simon Lack, Managing Partner of SL Advisors, discuss why he believes the Shale Revolution is the most fantastic American success story.



MLP Funds Made for Uncle Sam

2013 and 2014 were great investing years. The S&P500 was +32% in 2013 and followed up with +14% the following year. MLPs also delivered strong performance. As long-time investors know, the Alerian MLP Index peaked in 2014 and even now remains 35% lower, while the S&P500 has continued to scale new heights.

Investors in MLP-dedicated mutual funds and ETFs yearn for a repeat, and probably feel entitled to one. Investors in such products are generally not looking for 5-10% either. Given what the sector has endured, the returns of 4-5 years ago would not be amiss. Last week the sector finally turned positive YTD — such optimistic thoughts do not seem out of place.

Those hoping for such may want to consider their choice of vehicle. MLP-dedicated funds are taxed as corporations, and so they pay taxes as well as other operating expenses before delivering their taxable returns to investors. These funds labored under some of the highest expense ratios in the industry during those banner years. Their tax expense is fully disclosed, but still in our experience poorly understood. Sitting with a financial advisor and educating him on a previously unfathomable expense burden still routinely elicits embarrassment and shock.

The chart below shows the 2013-14 expense ratios of some of the biggest MLP-dedicated funds. Although corporate tax rates are now lower, the structural inefficiency persists. If MLPs do manage a couple of years of outsized performance, investors are likely to be surprised at the expenses that are deducted from their returns. Getting the sector right but picking the wrong investment is an avoidable tragedy (see AMLP’s Tax Bondage).

In 2013, the funds in the chart had an average expense ratio of 9.4%. With average returns of 18.2%, around a third of the gross return was eaten up in expenses, most of which was corporate taxes. Six years ago in The Hedge Fund Mirage, I showed how the profits had split very unevenly between fees to managers versus returns to clients. It surprised many, although not the fund managers who well understood and enjoyed the imbalance. The 2013-14 result in MLP funds was similar, although the offending expenses in this case are corporate taxes rather than manager fees. Nonetheless, considering that investors still have to meet their own tax liability on the net investment results, these look like products that the Federal government might have designed.

Promoters will explain that all MLP funds are taxable, which is true. When investing in energy infrastructure meant MLPs, that was perhaps a defensible argument. But many of today’s biggest energy infrastructure businesses have abandoned the MLP structure. They’ve found the investor base to be fickle, limited to older wealthy Americans who prefer income and are unwilling to finance the growth opportunities opened up by the Shale Revolution. These long-time buyers have been badly abused, with multiple distribution cuts and adverse tax outcomes when their MLP simplifies by combining with its corporate parent. It should be no surprise that MLP yield spreads versus ten year treasuries remain historically wide.

In May, Williams Companies (WMB) rolled up their MLP into their corporate parent (see Transco Dumps Its MLP). Enbridge (ENB) also simplified their structure on the same day. Both cited regulatory uncertainty caused by the FERC ruling (see FERC Ruling Pushes Pipelines Out of MLPs). But the difficulty of raising equity capital for an MLP is an issue for many.

As a result, tax-burdened MLP-dedicated funds are now confronting a shrinking set of opportunities. They are becoming an anachronism, as the energy infrastructure industry steadily leaves the MLP buyer behind in favor of a far bigger set of investors.

Moreover, the shrinking MLP universe is going to create further challenges for such funds (see The Alerian Problem). At the annual MLP conference in Orlando, many participants commented that an MLP-only index was now inadequate, no longer reflective of the energy infrastructure sector (see The Uncertain Future of MLP-Dedicated Funds). MLPs are less than half of North American midstream energy infrastructure, a point recently tweeted by Hinds Howard of CBRE Clarion Securities (@MLPGuy).

Managers of MLP-dedicated funds are telling their clients not to worry — as they would given their MLP-centric business model. But a shrinking index is rare in Finance, and offers the fund manager few good options: (1) Do nothing, and hope your clients tolerate a more concentrated portfolio with smaller names; (2) Start holding corporations as well as MLPs. This would require an ingenious explanation, because you’d now have taxable corporations sitting in a tax-paying fund delivering taxable returns to investors, a solution with poor optics; (3) Switch to a broader index and become RIC-compliant. This is the nuclear option, since it requires an MLP-dedicated fund to shed 75% of its holdings in order to come under the 25% MLP limit necessary to be RIC-compliant. If the $10BN Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP) sold $7.5BN of MLPs, they’d find that by the time they were done with that, for MLP prices, down is a long way. It’s unlikely they could seriously contemplate such a choice — their investors should hope they never do.

AMLP is the biggest of these flawed funds. In 2013-14 its expense ratio was 8.6% and 8.8% respectively. Today, AMLP has modest unrealized losses; a continued recovery in the sector will soon turn these into gains, resulting in AMLP once again incurring a Deferred Tax Liability along the lines of 2013-14. Since it’s close to the inflection point at which it becomes a taxpayer, shorting AMLP exploits the attractive asymmetry of a tax drag impeding its rise, while it will still reflect the full force of a market drop. It’ll rise at approximately only 77% of the index, and fall 100% of it. AMLP as a short can be combined with a long position in a portfolio of energy infrastructure corporations, or even with a correctly structured, RIC-compliant fund with no tax drag. Such a paired trade combines long positions focused on energy infrastructure corporations, which have very strong fundamentals, with a short position focused on the MLP structure than is increasingly being abandoned.

We are long ENB and WMB. We are short AMLP.

MLPs Searching for a New Look

This year’s MLPA conference at the Hyatt Regency Orlando reflected the sector’s current transition. It was rebranded from years past to be the MLP & Energy Infrastructure Conference (MEIC), now open to energy infrastructure corporations as well as MLPs. Revealingly, this inevitable recognition of the continuing shift of MLPs to a corporate structure was not embraced by former MLPs. Kinder Morgan (KMI), Oneok Inc (OKE) and Williams Companies (WMB) all declined to participate.

Since almost no corporations showed up, it was an MLP conference after all, albeit with fewer companies and what seemed like a smaller crowd. The conference took place in a more modest set of ballrooms at the Hyatt while another, unrelated event occupied the larger space. The managers of MLP-dedicated, tax-burdened funds (see AMLP’s Tax Bondage) are alone in their unequivocal support of MLPs as the best way to invest in energy infrastructure. The diminished conference must have been a sobering assault on their conviction.

Clearly, energy infrastructure corporations see no value in being associated with MLPs. Moreover, in the smaller group meetings of a half dozen or so investors with management teams, most MLPs were left defending their decision to persist with the MLP structure. “When will you convert to a corporation?”, known as the Simplification Question, came up in every single meeting we attended, even when the company was doing very well (such as Crestwood, CEQP). One management team had an internal over/under bet on how many times they’d be asked all day – trading was at 75.

The industry’s shift to a growth model has already alienated their traditional, income seeking investor base by resulting in widespread distribution cuts to pay for new projects (see Will MLP Distribution Cuts Pay Off?). This is a self-inflicted wound, but the March FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) Policy Statement may turn out to be nearly as ruinous (see FERC Ruling Pushes Pipelines Out of MLPs). A panel of lawyers discussed the thinking behind the change, which was cited by both WMB and Enbridge (ENB) last week as they rolled up their MLPs into the corporate parent (see Transco Dumps its MLP). Attendees overflowed from the cozy ballroom.

It seems highly likely that FERC  gave only brief consideration to the impact of disallowing income tax expense from cost-of-service natural gas pipeline contracts. The idea that an MLP could expense taxes paid by its equity holders in calculating rates strikes some as odd, but it had been accepted practice for many years. Following a successful court challenge in 2016, FERC waited almost two years to implement the regulatory change required by the judge’s ruling. FERC’s ponderous approach, as well as subsequent questions over precise implementation details, provided further impetus to abandon the uncertainty of the MLP structure. Corporate-owned pipelines are not similarly affected, and so represent a more predictable form of ownership.

One odd twist is that although disallowing an expense ought to benefit the customer, by rolling up into a corporate parent an MLP’s assets are revalued from historic cost to market values. This could ultimately lead to higher tariffs, since cost of service must include an appropriate return on a now more highly valued asset. The lawyers on the panel were unwilling to criticize FERC, since they often represent clients appealing the regulator’s decisions. Among attendees, there was widespread consensus that FERC had screwed up. However, the panel held out little hope of a policy change unless ordered by a Federal court.

Meetings with management teams weren’t only about changing structure. Fundamentals are very strong across the U.S. energy industry, and business is booming for midstream infrastructure. Pursuit of growth projects, while maintaining healthy distribution coverage and reducing leverage, was the theme. The Shale Revolution has long been a volume success, but it’s finally translating into a financial success as well. Investors have had a long wait.

Although the Permian is producing record amounts of crude oil, one CEO said he thought associated natural gas output could reach 30 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D), versus 8-9 BCF/D currently. He felt inadequate take-away infrastructure would consequently drive the price at the local Waha hub to $1 per Million Cubic Feet. American natural gas is likely to remain among the world’s cheapest.

Water disposal came up in some discussions, and with volumes of produced water (i.e. water that comes out of the ground with the oil) in the Permian running at 4X the amount of crude output, treatment and disposal is providing additional infrastructure opportunities. Several firms were considering investments in this area.

Plains All American (PAGP/PAA) management was surprisingly defensive when asked about their simplification plans. They feigned surprise at the question (perhaps out of boredom) and suggested to one investor that perhaps he didn’t fully understand their structure. What’s really hard to understand is how the biggest crude oil pipeline operator in the Permian isn’t generating better results when record oil production is exceeding take-away pipeline capacity.

This has caused the Midland-Cushing differential to widen to $15 per barrel recently, far above the $2-3 pipeline tariff between the two hubs (see Dwindling Pipeline Capacity Causes FOMO). It should be a huge win for PAGP, whose investors holds the stock for precisely this scenario. But earlier 2016-17 mis-steps in Supply and Logistics caused PAGP to hedge 2018 basis risk far more conservatively, largely missing out on today’s excess demand for pipeline capacity. At still approximately 60% below their 2013 IPO price, PAGP’s stock reflects the need for better execution by management.

CEQP continues to execute well and met with many happy investors given the stock’s climb over the past couple of years. Meetings with Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) and Magellan Midstream Partners (MMP) were typically reassuring. Neither sees the need to convert from their MLP structure.

Enlink (ENLC/ENLK) Chairman Barry Davis described how they were emulating parent company Devon Energy’s (DVN) investment in IT to manage their operations. DVN has a single Data Control Center that remotely monitors all their activities. ENLC has created a task force to find similar opportunities to automate.

“Refracs” (when today’s new technology is applied to a previously fracked well) are delivering some impressive results for DVN in the Barnett shale for around $600K per well. But as in the past, ENLC will benefit as DVN sheds those assets in a region that they don’t deem strategic, to others willing to invest the time and capital. Nonetheless, a play believed to be in decline continues to maintain flat production.

Cheniere (LNG) explained how, in signing up customers for their next export facility, they can guarantee capacity from Sabine Pass as a stop-gap. Producers are sometimes unwilling to make a binding commitment to use new infrastructure when they’re unsure it’ll get built. LNG’s early-mover advantage allows them to guarantee capacity on Train 3 to producers who sign up for yet-to-be-built Train 6, which makes it easier to get customer commitments.

The industry’s fundamentals are good but complaints were heard that questions of structure continue to dominate. Many feel the MLP-only indices are losing relevance, and unanswered questions linger over the future of MLP-dedicated funds such as the Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP) and many mutual funds, since they face a shrinking number of MLPs to hold (see The Alerian Problem).

Next year REITs will apparently be added to the conference, which is relocating to Las Vegas. The conference organizers grasp the need for a broader approach.

We are long CEQP, ENB, ENLC, KMI, LNG, PAGP and WMB. We are short AMLP.

Transco Dumps its MLP

On the University of Texas website is a documentary titled Gift from the Earth: Natural Gas. It describes the construction of a pipeline to transport natural gas from Texas to population centers on the east coast, as far away as New York City. The pipeline was built by the Transcontinental Gas Company (Transco), and the documentary is from the 1950s.

Today, Transco has grown into America’s largest natural gas pipeline network. Since 1995 it’s been owned by Williams Partners (WPZ). With some justification, WPZ management describes it as irreplaceable – the cost to acquire the land and easement rights combined with the infrastructure itself would run into the tens of $Billions. WPZ is 6.6% of the Alerian MLP Index (AMZ) and 8.1% of the Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index (AMZI). It will soon be leaving.

Williams Companies (WMB) is WPZ’s corporate parent. They concluded that the advantages of having an MLP had diminished, and that their business will grow faster by rolling up the remaining publicly held units of WPZ (WMB already owns 74%) into the parent. Oneok Inc. (OKE), which absorbed its MLP last year, has an Enterprise Value/EBITDA multiple of 15-16X, a valuation WMB must feel is attainable from its present 11-12X.

MLPs retained their tax-free status through last year’s tax reform. The problem is that the investor base remains frustratingly narrow. Those who face tax hurdles in buying MLPs include tax-exempt U.S. institutions and non-U.S. buyers, together a substantial percentage of U.S. equity holders. Most individuals are put off by the K-1s rather than 1099s for tax reporting. That leaves older, wealthy Americans whose accountants prepare their tax returns as the main source of equity capital.

Given their dependence on a fairly limited set of buyers, you might think MLPs would have treated them better. These holders were attracted by high, reliable tax-deferred payouts combined with modest growth. The Shale Revolution created new business opportunities that raised leverage, leading to slashed distributions (over 50 so far), and simplifications that come with a tax bill. Betrayed, these older, wealthy Americans now regard with skepticism MLP yields that are historically high, thereby raising the cost of equity capital for the sector.

Having destroyed their original buyers’ appetite, many companies have concluded that they need access to all the global equity investors, which requires being a corporation. On the same day that WMB announced their roll-up transaction, Enbridge Inc (ENB) made a similar move with their four sponsored vehicles, including MLPs Spectra Energy Partners (SEP) and Enbridge Energy Partners (EEP).

Uncertainty over FERC policy (see FERC Ruling Pushes Pipelines Out of MLPs) has also weighed on the sector, prompting some considering incorporation to move ahead.  WMB and ENB are the most recent in a steady stream of companies abandoning the MLP structure. In the past couple of months three other MLPs have made similar announcements, representing in aggregate 13.3% of AMZ (benchmark for numerous funds) and 15.5% of AMZI (benchmark for the Alerian MLP ETF, AMLP) which, absent further changes, will drop from 26 constituents today to 21.

This need not matter for direct holders. If your MLP is absorbed by its corporate parent, your MLP units are swapped for corporate equity securities. The assets are still there. In a now familiar routine, as they part with their WPZ units, WPZ holders will receive a tax bill for deferred income tax as well as a dividend cut (since WMB’s $1.36 dividend multiplied by the 1.494 exchange ratio is $2.03, 17% lower than WPZ’s current $2.46 distribution). It’s WPZ’s third cut in the last four years, so they must be getting used to it. Meanwhile, WMB will create a tax shield for itself through a stepped up cost basis on the acquired WPZ assets, making it 2024 before they’ll be a cash tax payer. This common benefit first drew attention when used four years ago (see The Tax Story Behind Kinder Morgan’s Big Transaction).

The new WMB will finance its growth with asset sales and reinvested profits while reducing leverage. They expect 10-15% annual dividend growth. It’s generally all good for WMB investors. But for many, the bigger story continues to be the impact of a steadily shrinking MLP universe on MLP-dedicated mutual funds and ETFs. AMLP and many MLP mutual funds now combine a tax-burdened corporate structure (see AMLP’s Tax Bondage) with a shrinking opportunity set that will soon exclude America’s biggest natural gas pipeline network. The problem has been growing (see Are MLPs Going Away? and The Alerian Problem).

In an amusing twist, during WMB’s investor day one analyst asked whether they’d considered maintaining Transco’s ownership within an MLP by shifting it into a blocker corporation. This is similar to the structure used by tax-burdened funds such as AMLP. WMB CEO Alan Armstrong replied that the additional corporate tax liability rendered such a solution uneconomic through multiple layers of taxation. In other words, the structure by which AMLP holds WPZ is regarded as unworkable when considered by parent WMB.

The promoters of such poorly structured funds deny a problem, which leaves it to their investors to do their own homework. Fewer MLPs may even cause investors to exit such funds in search of more diversified exposure, depressing prices. ENB’s press release referred to, “…the continuing deterioration in the MLP equity marketplace.”  Their presentation asserts that, “Sponsored vehicles are ineffective and unreliable standalone financing vehicles.” MLPs aren’t going away, but they’re clearly not an attractive choice for companies in need of equity capital to grow.

The problem is one of structure, not fundamentals. U.S. hydrocarbon output is hitting new records, in some cases leaving the infrastructure struggling to keep up (see Dwindling Pipeline Capacity Causes FOMO). The appeal of broad-based, tax-efficient energy infrastructure using mostly corporations is strong.

We are invested in ENB, KMI and WMB. We are short AMLP


U.S. Plays Its Foreign Policy Hand Freed From Oil

Reports on the Shale Revolution rarely discuss its impact on U.S. energy security, but with little fanfare it’s affording the U.S. greater geopolitical flexibility. The Administration’s decision last week to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was made without significant regard to the ensuing reduction in Iranian oil exports. Successive U.S. presidents back to Richard Nixon have called for U.S. energy independence without being able to achieve it. The U.S. is already energy independent on a BTU-equivalent basis (i.e. we produce more energy than we consume in aggregate). We became natural gas independent last year as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) exports ramped up. We’ve been a net exporter of ethane since 2014, and of propane since 2011.

But when a President calls for energy independence – or even energy dominance – he means crude oil. Here, the story is almost as good. In August 2006, net imports of crude oil and petroleum products hit 13.4 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D). Today that figure is below 3 MMB/D. Even when the U.S. does become a net exporter we’ll still be importing the sour, heavy crude favored by domestic refineries while exporting the lighter grades that are increasingly produced from shale.

Furthermore, our imports are increasingly from friendly countries. Canadian exports to the U.S. have been rising for years and are currently 4.3MMB/D, while OPEC imports have dropped by 50% in the past decade, to below 3 MMB/D. U.S. imports from Iran ceased entirely during the 1980 hostage crisis and have never recovered. In fact, total trade in goods between the U.S. and Iran was an inconsequential $200MM last year. While Iran is of no economic value to the U.S., the likely imposition of sanctions will constrain Iran’s exports to other countries. The recent rally in crude is in part attributed to fears of less Iranian crude on the global market – they currently produce 3.8MMB/D.

But the U.S. is far less vulnerable to a price spike than in the past. Oil-producing states such as Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma will welcome the economic boost. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin was reported to have discussed with U.S. oil companies ways in which they could raise output, but any decisions are likely to be commercially driven. The Federal government was of little help to the industry during the 2014-16 oil price collapse, and has limited near term ability to influence production levels.

U.S. crude output is responding. Rising prices and falling break-evens are improving profitability, driving output to 10.7MMB/D. Just a year ago, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) was forecasting 2018 output of 9.9MMB/D, likely 1 MMB/D too low. They now expect 2019 to average 11.9MMB/D. Although growing strongly, U.S. output is insufficient to meet new global demand (~1.5MMB/D) plus offset depletion of existing oil fields (estimated 3-4 MMB/D). OPEC is showing surprising discipline in sticking to their supply agreement. Iran’s exports will likely drop and Venezuela’s production is in freefall. It’s not hard to make a bullish case for oil, and for U.S. companies involved in its production and transportation.

Infrastructure constraints are appearing (see Dwindling Pipeline Capacity Causes FOMO), most visibly in the Midland-Houston crude spread which recently exceeded $15. Wellhead prices can suffer an additional discount of up to $8/bbl to adjust for trucking and shuttle pipeline transportation costs to Midland.  Differentials are far in excess of the cost of pipeline transport, because pipelines leaving the Permian in west Texas are full. There are reports that the rail network is clogged with trainloads of fracking sand entering the region, while trucks and truckers are in short supply. Although the logistical challenges offer profit opportunities for the owners of energy infrastructure, in the near term crude output growth may be constrained.

It’s even more acute for Permian natural gas production, which is an associated by-product of crude oil output. On Energy Transfer’s earnings call COO Marshall McCrea predicted occasional days of no bid for natural gas at the Waha hub, a collection point for Permian gas. That’ll leave drillers contemplating flaring of natural gas or shutting in otherwise profitable wells while the infrastructure catches up.

In March, before today’s pipeline constraints had affected price differentials, Magellan Midstream Partners (MMP) dropped plans to add a pipeline that would have moved 350,000 Barrels per Day of crude across Texas, because not enough producers would guarantee to use it. Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD) CEO Scott Sheffield warned the industry, ““Oil has a problem late this year and also in 2020.” He added, “It will teach these producers a lesson that they better sign up.”

In other words, insufficient pipeline capacity is in part down to the earlier reluctance of producers to commit, which discouraged the development of infrastructure that would have been in use today. Smaller firms, often privately owned, are more vulnerable than large ones. PXD has firm transportation contracts in place for their increasing production of oil and gas, a point they highlighted in their recent earnings presentation.

One analyst at Rystad Energy blamed energy infrastructure companies for the bottlenecks, saying they had, “…really missed their opportunity when there was a need for investment in new capacity.” In fact, the multi-year travails of MLPs can be traced to the relentless pursuit of growth projects by management teams at the expense of stable distributions (see Will MLP Distributions Pay Off?). When capital was available and customer commitments forthcoming, new infrastructure was built. Oil producers have surprised many, including themselves, at the volume growth efficiencies have made possible. PXD reports Permian breakevens for producers at under $30 per barrel, and in their 1Q18 earnings report show their own costs at around $19 per barrel.

Thanks to the Shale Revolution, U.S. geopolitical decisions are benefiting from more strategic flexibility than in the past.

We are invested in Energy Transfer Equity (ETE), General Partner of ETP, and MMP