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MLPs Report Encouraging Prospects

It’s earnings season, and last week Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) reported another solid quarter. An appealing feature of EPD is the absence of a General Partner (GP). So unlike many other MLPs, EPD LP unitholders do not suffer a haircut to Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) from GP Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs) before the cash makes its way to the LPs for their distribution. This allows the growth of DCF from EPD’s portfolio of assets to flow right through to EPD unitholders, thereby giving it a lower cost of capital than would be the case if there was a GP. Insiders also own 35% of the units, a significant alignment of interests.

EPD’s full year results came in modestly better than expected and their distribution growth from 2013 was +5.8%. They also have unusually high DCF coverage of 1.4X which allows them to fund part of their planned growth through this excess of DCF over declared distributions. EPD is positioning itself to support the U.S. shift to role of refined products exporter, and its planned growth capex is on the same trajectory as it was last Summer when oil was above $100 bbl.

Kinder Morgan (KMI) held their Analyst Day on Wednesday and provided further detail on the business following their earnings release the prior week. As they pointed out numerous times during the day of presentations, 85% of their 2015 cashflows are fee-based and a further 9% are hedged, leaving only 6% subject to commodity price swings.

NuStar (NS) was also interesting, in that their reported earnings showed distribution coverage of 1.1, at last sufficient to cover payouts to unitholders. It’s not that long ago that  their distribution was at risk, but they have exited the asphalt business, greatly reduced their commodity sensitivity and focused on the storage business. Analysts on the earnings call were even asking about the timing of a distribution increase. NS has a publicly traded GP called NuStar GP Holdings (NSH). Its current distribution generates a yield of 5.8%, very high for a GP. NSH receives up to 23% of the DCF of NS and it is currently at that level. As the business returns to growth NSH’s IDRs, 13.1% LP interest and smaller outstanding number of unit compared with NS should translate into roughly twice the distribution growth rate as that experienced by the other LP unitholders in NS. It’s why we prefer the GPs.

We are invested in EPD, KMI and NSH.

Energy Transfer Shows the Power of the General Partner

This morning Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) agreed to merge with Regency Energy Partners (RGP). Terms included an equity swap whereby RGP holders will receive 0.4066 ETP units and $0.32 in cash for each RGP unit they hold. ETP is also assming RGP’s debt. Energy Transfer Equity (ETE), ETP’s General Partner,  already owns the GP and Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs) for RGP. However, the IDR’s were only at the 25% split level with respect to RGP, meaning that ETE was receiving 25% of RGP’s Distributable Cash Flow (DCF), whereas ETE is at the 50% splits on its share of ETP’s DCF. Simply put, prior to the merger ETE was getting more of each dollar generated by ETP than it was from RGP. Following the merger, RGP’s DCF will in effect be subject to the same 50% split at ETP’s. ETE has agreed to forego $320 million of IDR distributions over the next five years as a sweetener. It is nonetheless a nice deal for ETE and the relative performance of the stock prices reflects this. ETE is currently up over 4% reflecting its improved cashflow outlook, while ETP is down more than 5%, perhaps in part because of the issuance of additional units. RGP is up because the terms of the transaction represented a premium to RGP’s Friday close. RGP’s projected 2015 distribution yield was 8.9% prior to the transaction compared with 6.6% for ETP, so even allowing for the modest premium the transaction is still accretive to ETP. Importantly though, ETE investors most notably including CEO Kelcy Warren did not have to provide any capital to make this transaction happen; it’s been funded by ETP, as directed by ETE, its GP. The subsequent entity will also have a stronger balance sheet with a lower cost of debt, making future acquisitons easier to execute.

It highlights the advantages of investing in the General Partners of MLPs. They have all the control, and can execute M&A transactions that improve their economics with little or no obligation to provide additional capital. We are invested in ETE, as is Kelcy Warren who owns almost 80 million units of ETE worth around $4.5 billion. He figured this out long ago.

Kinder Morgan Finds Value in a New Pipeline Network

Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have been falling along with the rest of the Energy sector since oil began its plunge last Summer. Following its peak in August, the Alerian MLP Index is down 15.1%. So far it’s down 1.6% in January, typically a strong month as retail investors implement asset reallocations settled on over the Christmas holidays. However, there are some signs of stabilization as the Index was -8.9% for the month by January 13th so has rebounded since then.

We’re in earnings season, a time during which those firms with solid fundamentals and limited direct commodity price exposure can differentiate themselves by reporting their results and providing guidance. Kinder Morgan (KMI), although no longer technically an MLP since their reorganization last year, still derives over half their cashflows from natural gas pipelines and is solidly in the midstream sector. During the conference call following their earnings they went through the coverage of their $2 distribution and although there are many moving parts the distribution coverage looks comfortable even with crude oil substantially lower (into the $20s per bbl) and natural gas down to $1 per MCF. Their direct exposure to crude oil and natural gas prices is limited. They reaffirmed 10% distribution growth through 2020. The stock yields 4.7% on its 2015 dividend.

KMI also made their first investment in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota by acquiring Hiland Partners LP, a privately owned MLP with pipeline assets in a still under-served area, from Continental CEO Harold Hamm. The $3 billion price tag will help fund Hamm’s expensive divorce.

KMI expects to invest an additional $800M in these new assets, expanding their capacity to transport crude oil from North Dakota. At a time when many are worrying about production cutbacks by U.S. shale producers this decision to make a new capital commitment highlights an interesting advantage pipelines retain over other form of crude oil transportation such as rail or truck. Only around half the 1.2 million bpd of output from North Dakota moves by pipeline, so increasing the Double H Pipeline (for example) from 80,000 bpd to 108,000 by next year will help. Pipelines operate at as little as 25% of the cost of rail and truck. While the latter two can offer greater flexibility, once a pipeline is in place its substantial cost advantage makes it a formidable competitor, and the long term commitments required of shippers provide far greater certainty about future cashflows. Some have suggested that E&P firms will press their MLP partners for price cuts on transportation, but they’re more likely to start by cutting use of more expensive rail and trucking assets. Pipelines are also far safer, with proportionately fewer injuries or spills.

The impact of production cutbacks is more likely to be felt by the higher cost transportation networks such as rail and truck. The area of the Bakken served by Hiland’s network has, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, an IRR of 10% even with oil as low as $38 bbl. It’s one of the more profitable areas, and likely to keep producing output at current price levels. The Hiland acquisition is expected to be accretive to KMI by 2017. The company isn’t immune to reassessing its backlog of projects though, and although the figure only fell slightly (from $17.9BN to $17.6BN), $785MM of planned capex was shelved, mostly in its CO2 division where they have more direct exposure to the price of oil. So there clearly are some reductions in planned investment because of the drop in oil. These figures offer a measure of their likely magnitude, at least for a bellwether midstream operator.

In other news, Markwest Energy (MWE) increased its dividend by 4.7% YOY. It currently yields 6.2% based on its expected 2015 distribution. MWE owns its General Partner too, so unlike many MLPs there is no drag on distributions to investors from Incentive Distribution Rights. Consequently, all the growth directly benefits MWE investors.

We own both KMI and MWE in our portfolios.

Look For MLP Earnings To Confirm Business Fundamentals

The General Partners (GPs) of Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have in many cases taken quite a drubbing since the Summer when the sell-off in oil picked up steam. Plains GP Holdings (PAGP) for example has fallen 26% over this time. And yet, midstream MLPs have limited direct exposure to commodity prices. Kinder Morgan (KMI) is now a C-corp following the corporate reorganization that simplified their prior structure which had two MLPs controlled by their C-Corp owned GP. While their corporate structure was altered, their business model wasn’t. So KMI still earns 54% of its pre-depreciation earnings from running natural gas pipelines with fully 82% of its 2014 cashflows fee-based rather than driven by commodity prices.

Last week PAGP announced an increase in their quarterly distribution of 9.8% year-on-year, which caused the price of its securities to rally. Other GPs and C-Corps that own GPs will similarly be announcing earnings over the next several weeks. Their results and guidance will reflect the toll-like model that midstream MLPs operate combined with the advantaged economics enjoyed by those that control them. Over the past twelve months some of them have enjoyed stunningly fast distribution growth: Williams Companies (WMB) yields 5.1% and grew last year at 36%; Oneok (OKE) yields 4.7% and grew at 63%. Given the recent indiscriminate selling of energy-related stocks, the earnings announcements of these and related companies will provide a useful reminder about their business fundamentals. It will be an area well worth watching.

Linn Energy is Not Your Father's MLP

Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) are best when they’re boring over the short term. Predictably raising your cashflows and distributions leads to long term excitement at the very reasonable cost of being tedious to watch on a daily basis.

In 2014, Linn Energy (LINE) was the antithesis of this. While most MLPs own midstream energy infrastructure assets with their toll model, LINE is engaged in Exploration and Production (E&P) of oil and natural gas. The consequent commodity price exposure makes both their cashflows and stock price highly volatile. This contradicts the point of owning MLPs, which is to extend the holding period indefinitely so as to maximize the tax shield that the deferral of income affords. The best MLPs are those that are stable, boring and whose valuation doesn’t hit either extreme of rich or cheap. Because selling an MLP usually creates a tax bill, greatly impeding overall returns.

LINE fell 67% in 2014 because of its exposure to oil. It was obviously a great sale earlier last year above $30. It may be a great buy now at around $11, given that they’ve done the inevitable and cut their distribution. But timing MLPs isn’t easy, and investing in businesses like LINE requires some timing skills on the part of the investor because it’s not always a good name to hold. This is LINE’s second collapse since their 2006 IPO. In fact, even a buyer in 2008 at the stock’s absolute low is now barely ahead of breakeven following a six year roller coaster.

So buying LINE may be a good trade as it’s fallen so far. But buying and then inevitably selling it is unlikely to be a tax-efficient investment. Boring is better, and after taxes far superior.

6% Yields on MLPs Are Looking Attractive

Another day and another new low for crude oil. Since stocks are moving with oil, trying to figure out the short term direction of the equity market requires being an oil trader. Few of us are any good at this although it’s easy to have an opinion. For our part, we don’t bet on the direction of oil although many of our investments react to it so we’re certainly experiencing the moves.

Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) as I write this are close to flat on the year (as represented by the Alerian index). Distribution yields have drifted up to 6%. Midstream MLPs care about volumes of product, crude and refined, that they gather and process, store and transport. Lower oil is currently forecast to add 0.5% to US GDP in 2015 as the tax cut that it represents feeds through to higher consumption. Energy demand is unlikely to fall, and obviously should increase at the margin. Americans will drive a little more and worry a little less about conservation. The outlook for MLPs is generally good.

The shale boom may slow, with reductions in capex and therefore at the margin some growth projects that could fuel faster distribution growth may be delayed or cancelled altogether. U.S. oil production may not grow as fast as expected. Of course, it’s not only U.S. production that may slow. Halliburton announced 1,000 job cuts in response to weaker demand for their services across Europe, Russia, Africa and the Middle East. Day rates for offshore drilling are plummeting as reported by Transocean (RIG) and Diamond Offshore (DO). The U.S. is one of the few places where productions costs are falling. Range Resources (RRC) has been reducing its output costs of natural gas from SW Pennsylvania by 7% annually for several years.

Seasonally, MLPs typically rally in December and January as retail investors reallocate cash. So far December is not typical. But 6% yields are attractive with even half the growth you thought MLPs might be generating, and there’s certainly no reason to expect any demand destruction which is what most hurts their businesses. Falling asset prices are never pleasant for the holders of those assets. But an unleveraged investment in MLPs at today’s levels is likely to look prescient a year from now.

MLP Seasonals

Seasonal patterns to the returns of most asset classes rarely seem to last beyond their discovery. “Sell in May and Go Away” has been shown to either work or not work depending on precisely when you close the trade out. Rather than the Summer being a bad time for stocks it’s just that September is poor. Whether that’s for some reason or just random is unclear. As so often in statistics, correlation doesn’t mean causality. One month of the year has to be the worst one during which to be invested in stocks. Since 1960 it’s been September. In 2014 September was poor but January was, unusually, worse. There was no January effect this year. September’s poor record could just be random, absent any compelling explanation.

Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have a more pronounced seasonal effect, and it’s likely for good reason (i.e. correlation with causation). It turns out that December and January together have generated 36% of the return on the Alerian MLP Index since 1996 (whereas if monthly returns didn’t vary you’d expect only 17%, or 2/12). The reason is probably that retail investors, who tend to predominate among MLP investors, apply long term consideration to their portfolios around year-end. This can be because year-end bonuses alter their net worth and asset allocation, because it’s the end of the tax year or simply because doing the analysis provides a break from all that family time that comes with the holidays.

In any event, we’re heading into a period of time where the seasonals would suggest that, if you’re considering making an MLP investment over the next six months, committing capital in November may well produce a better result than waiting until February. Naturally, there are always the non-seasonal factors to consider and the volatility in energy-related stocks could understandably give anyone pause. The most recent Saudi news that they’ve cut prices for U.S. buyers so as to protect market share looks like a direct aim at North American unconventional production, and is likely to send another wave of worry through related equities.

Midstream MLP companies that have reported earnings in recent days appear sanguine about current oil prices and their effect on their businesses. If you own a pipeline, storage facilities or a gathering and processing network you care most about volumes rather than the value of the product you’re handling. It’ll take some time to see how that plays out in reported profits for the sector. In the meantime, news reports may continue to pressure everything energy related. If the recent pressure on MLPs turns out to be due to misplaced concern that their profits will suffer along with E&P names who have direct commodity price exposure, then returns over the next few months could be good.

Valuing Kinder Morgan in its New Structure

The Kinder Morgan transaction announced Sunday night represents a new paradigm for Master Limited Partnership (MLP) investors. Like any new paradigm, digesting its impact takes some time. Rich Kinder, CEO and largest owner of the eponymous firm that controls Kinder Morgan Partners (KMP) and El Paso (EPB) was one of the early users of the MLP model. He recognized the power of the partial tax shield the structure provides its investors to lower his cost of capital, thereby supporting a growth strategy as this funding advantage allowed the accumulation of additional assets.

MLPs are liked for their steady, tax-deferred yields. The consequent K-1s are generally worth it for investors with $500K or more to allocate. Low turnover is key, because selling an MLP invariably results in the recapture of taxes previously deferred. In our view this directs the investor towards MLPs with stable, predictably growing cashflows. A strategy that involves regular switching out of “rich” names and into “cheaper” ones can create tax consequences that swamp any perceived positive impact on the portfolio. If your money manager is personally invested in the same securities that his clients own, you’ll find he’s acutely sensitive to after-tax returns and as a result is a miserly user of brokers while letting the tax advantages compound over time.

While stable, tax-deferred returns are a well known feature of MLPs, an element that receives far less attention is the weak governance rights and preferential position of the General Partner (GP). Although MLPs are publicly traded, unitholders (as MLP investors are known) have very limited rights compared with traditional investors in corporate equities. Not all MLPs have a GP, but those that do place most of the power with the GP. Read through the prospectus of a typical MLP and you’ll find out just how hard it is to fire a GP. That’s why you don’t see activists buying MLPs. Unitholders don’t get much say in its operation.

Meanwhile, the GP is entitled to a split of the Distributable Cashflow (DCF), basically defined as earnings plus depletion and depreciation less maintenance capex (the cost of keeping existing assets in good working order). The 50% share of DCF that most GPs enjoy represents a significant drag on returns that unitholders get. In the case of KMP, it had long been understood that this limited their ability to grow, and consequently KMP’s distribution yield was around 6.8% prior to this transaction, 1-2% above its peers. Because MLPs don’t retain earnings, they have to raise additional capital by issuing debt and equity for each new capital investment. KMP’s high yield plus the Incentive Distribution Rights (IDR) drag to which its GP KMI was entitled was making it hard to find projects that would cover its cost of capital. KMP was too big to make investments that could cover its funding cost and drive growth. In addition, the 50% GP share continues as cashflows grow while the GP doesn’t have to fund the capital required to grow those cashflows. Just as a hedge fund manager’s 1.5% management fee assures that asset growth is profitable, so it is for the MLP GP.

Rich Kinder complained that the market wasn’t fully valuing KMP’s opportunities, but the price stayed stubbornly low. Given Kinder’s bullish view of M&A activity in the energy infrastructure space, his inability to participate with an expensive currency was frustrating. He concluded that, as good as the MLP structure is, there were limits and the growth of the Kinder enterprise was testing those limits.

Some years ago we began shifting our MLP strategy away from GP-controlled MLPs and into the GPs themselves (as more became publicly available) as well as into MLPs who have no GP (some have bought the GP back in, simplifying their structure and eliminating the drag of IDRs which makes them more competitive acquirers). So although we did once own KMP, we shifted into KMI. We gave up the tax deferral since KMI is a C-corp, paying corporate income tax like any other U.S. corporation and providing investors with a 1099 rather than a K-1. We felt sharing in the 50% IDR split of KMP’s DCF was preferable to having to pay it away as a KMP unitholder. As we’ve written before, it’s analogous to investing in the hedge fund manager (for whom asset growth is always positive) rather than the hedge fund (for whom asset growth may or may not be good). The fact that Rich Kinder concentrated his ownership in KMI rather than KMP was an additional factor we considered.

Now that KMI has simplified its structure, eKMI Peer Group Comparison August 14 2014liminated its IDR and cleverly created $20BN of tax savings, it has a higher dividend with better growth prospects than before. Conventional valuation of KMI compares it with other C-corps that own their GP and have an MLP underneath on which they rely to fund capital investments and funnel cashflows back up to the GP. KMI’s peer group in this regard includes Oneok Inc (OKE), Williams Companies (WMB), Targa Resources Corp (TRGP) and Plains GP Holdings (PAGP). Generally, faster growth prospects (defined here as 5 year estimated Distribution Compounded Annual Growth Rate) dictate a lower yield, and so the chart to the left  illustrates where these securities lie. KMI-Old (i.e. before the announcement) was on a regression line linking its peers, but we liked it because we felt there was the possibility of a transformational transaction such as the one we’ve just seen, KMI-New appears to be a relatively more attractive security because its better growth prospects don’t appear to be fully reflected in its yield. If KMI’s yield dropped down to the regression line its price would be around $50 versus its current level of $39.50 (we’ve assumed they buy back the outstanding warrants at current prices and adjusted their sharecount accordingly). So we still own KMI.

But here’s the point. There’s a good case that KMI should no longer be compared with the other C-corps (technically, PAGP is a partnership but for tax purposes they issue a 1099). What they all have in common is an entity that controls the GP to a publicly traded MLP. This used to apply to KMI but once tKMI C Corps Peersheir simplifying transaction closes later this year that will no longer be the case. KMI will actually look more like a different peer group, consisting of MLPs that no longer have a GP. This peer group includes Buckeye Partners (BPL), Enterprise Products Partners (EPD), Markwest Energy Partners (MWE) and Magellan Midstream Partners (MMP). The revised Yield vs Growth chart comparing KMI with this new peer group is on the right. If KMI was on the new regression line its price would be around $61.

None of these firms is a perfect comparison. BPL’s yield remains high because of challenges to its tarrifs in the NY area as well as its recent mis-step in Merchant Services. EPD has an exceptionally well regarded management team which depresses its yield. Markwest has more cashflow variability because of its gathering and processing business. Nonetheless, the fair value yield for KMI on this basis is even lower than using the more conventional method. We believe it’s warranted due to a now more competitive cost of capital with which to fund acquisitions.

KMI has been a long term holding of ours. We used the weakness caused by Hedgeye’s negative report last year to add. We continue to think it represents an attractive investment, and believe the announced restructuring has made it substantially more attractive than is currently reflected in its market price.

The Tax Story Behind Kinder Morgan's Big Transaction

On Sunday evening Rich Kinder, CEO of Kinder Morgan Inc (KMI) announced the transaction that many had been expecting as a response to the persistently low price of Kinder Morgan Partners (KMP) and El Paso (EPB), two MLPs in which KMI owns the General Partner (GP). The problem was that Kinder expects an increasing amount of M&A activity in the energy infrastructure space they inhabit, and his ability to participate has been greatly hampered by the high distribution yields on KMP and EPB. Their high yields (i.e. low prices) make them an expensive source of capital should he wish to acquire any assets by issuing new securities to the seller. He’s long complained that the market didn’t fully recognize the value in the Kinder Morgan complex.

The deal greatly simplifies Kinder’s structure in that four existing public equity securities will be collapsed into one. The drag of Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs), which direct half of the distributable cashflows to the GP, will be gone and the new KMI will offer a higher dividend and faster growth than the old one. Much has already been written about the transaction. What hasn’t received much attention is the tax issue.

Because KMI is acquiring assets at above their carrying value, they’ll be able to use the new, higher purchase price as their cost basis for taxes. This is quite different than when one corporation buys another. If A buys B for $100 and B’s equity value is $70, A holds $70 of assets and $30 of goodwill. You can’t do much with goodwill. You can’t depreciate it; you can’t write it off against taxes and from time to time you have to test it for impairment. You certainly can’t borrow against it. Many businesses are worth more than their book value equity, which is why goodwill as a concept exists in the course of an acquisition. But the accounting definition of goodwill plays no role in this transaction.

Because Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) are pass-through vehicles, the LP unitholders own a direct, proportionate share of the underlying assets (rather than shares in a corporation which in turn own the assets). If KMI was acquiring another corporation, they’d wind up with an asset of goodwill equal to the difference between the purchase price and the book value of the acquired company.

Because KMI is buying the underlying energy infrastructure assets directly (since MLPs are pass-through vehicles) the newly acquired assets go on KMI’s balance sheet at the new purchase price. It means they can be depreciated from this new higher value, and depreciation is tax-deductible. KMI used to benefit from depreciation of these assets before the transaction, but only from their lower, original purchase price. And over time the difference between depreciated value and actual value grows, since many pipelines increase in value. For example, Williams Companies (WMB) owns a pipeline network that runs down the east coast from NY to Texas called Transco. On an investor call recently a WMB executive commented that they had once tried to estimate what it would cost to build Transco today if it didn’t already exist, and had come up with a number of $100 billion. To put this in perspective, WMB’s entire enterprise value is $58 billion. It doesn’t mean Transco is worth $100 billion, but it illustrates that easements with perpetual ownership are much harder to replicate in today’s America of 310 million people than they were 30 or 50 years ago.

KMI’s tax savings through the higher depreciation afforded through a higher asset value is worth, they estimate, $20 billion. This is an important source of the higher dividend and the faster, 10% annual dividend growth they now forecast.

Meanwhile, taxes work in a different way for KMP and EPB unitholders. MLP investors pay less tax today on distributions than if the same cash was a dividend, but owe the tax not paid when they eventually sell the MLP. Some investors hold their MLPs for a long time, and maybe even until death (when their heirs are not liable for the taxes). As an MLP investor you’re trying to put off paying taxes as long as possible. The Kinder Morgan transaction is a taxable event for the KMP and EPB unitholders. KMI estimates that the typical KMP unitholder will owe from $13.81 to $18.16 per KMP unit owned, depending on the closing price of the transaction later this year.  That’s more than the cash component of the deal and makes it substantially less attractive for some unitholders (the longer you’ve been an investor the worse off you are). Even if you assume that the taxes would have been paid in 10 years (and assume a 10% return on the money* that would have been invested in KMP but now has to go to the IRS) it still eats up $8.49 to $11.16 of value.

So although the deal was priced at a 12% premium to Friday’s close (in the case of KMP) or a 15.4% premium (in the case of EPB), the impact of having to pay taxes now rather than later gets the typical KMP investor roughly back to where they were with no transaction. KMI though has better prospects, in part due to the tax savings from higher depreciation.

It’s not always appreciated how much control GPs have over their MLPs. Although KMP’s high dividend yield represented a high cost of equity, this never actually precluded them making new acquisitions. The GP, KMI, could have directed KMP to raise capital at a cost above the return on the assets acquired which, while it would have diluted the LP’s returns would still have been good for KMI which would have shared in 50% of the increased DCF without having to put up any extra capital. A GP who so wished could exploit the LPs in his MLP by issuing equity to make acquisitions no matter how bad it was for the LP unitholders because the GP would still get its IDR-based share of the additional cashflows.

So while the transaction may look slightly less attractive to LP unitholders once taxes are considered, they could have received far worse treatment from an unscrupulous GP. Rich Kinder is not like that.

So the lesson here is, to invest alongside the people who run the businesses, which is in the GP. Rich Kinder’s a taxpayer and you can be sure that he gave careful consideration to what his own tax outcome would be. This is why we’ve long been owners of KMI, but had avoided KMP, EPB and indeed most other MLPs where a GP has a claim on the cashflows. If you invest in the GP at least your tax situation will receive more careful consideration from the billionaire alongside whom you’re investing.

 

*There is a theoretical case for using the investor’s borrowing cost to discount the tax liability. This results in a lower set of numbers and makes the tax analysis less adverse for the KMP unitholder.

The Trading Risk Confronting Some MLPs

Barron’s has one of their by now regular articles on MLPs this weekend as they interview their “MLP Roundtable”. These write-ups are invariably constructive, and the most recent one is no exception. As well as noting the many opportunities offered to build out infrastructure in support of America’s shale boom, General Partners (GPs) received a mention. Roundtable member Douglas Rachlin of Neuberger Berman pointed out that, “GPs are not required to contribute capital to the organic-growth projects or acquisitions their MLPs make; yet they benefit in a disproportionate manner through their ownership of distribution rights.”

Becca Followill of U.S. Capital Advisors added, “Some MLPs don’t have a general partner, which makes them easier to take out and can make a deal more accretive more quickly.”

These are both features of MLPs that we’ve long identified and reflected in our own MLP strategy.

Quite a few names reported quarterly earnings last week. The numbers were generally good and MLPs are overwhelmingly reporting increases in future capital investment which for GPs at a minimum assures continued growth in distributed cashflow received and therefore in dividends paid. But not everything was good. Buckeye Partners (BPL) issued a surprisingly disappointing report which included losses in their Merchant Services division. We’re investors in BPL and have been for years.

The most attractive businesses for MLPs are fee-based whereby they earn recurring income from storage and pipeline assets. BPL largely does this, but like a handful of other MLPs they also have a marketing division which incurs basis risk on its underlying products on behalf of customers, often in exchange for quite narrow margins.

These activities can be quite tricky to manage. MLPs face a principal-agent problem here, in that their desire is to generate a return through using their inside knowledge and control of product to charge more than the cost of the basis risk incurred. However, there is inevitably judgment involved, and while the MLP wants to exploit an additional element of its franchise, if not properly managed the traders involved will seek to make money from the risk taking side of this. In fact, risk-averse basis trading maximizes the firm’s franchise value and minimizes the value added of the trader. The trader’s incentive can therefore be to minimize the apparent value of the franchise so as to maximize the apparent value of his skill-based activities. It can lead to excessive risk-taking, since profits from properly exploiting the MLP’s position in the middle of all kinds of information about supply and demand can appear to value the trader less than trading profits generated through his own skill/judgment.

It’s not only banks that can get themselves into trouble with risk. And in BPL’s case, it appears that a poorly constructed hedging strategy went wrong during the 2Q, causing the Merchant Services unit to swing to an operating loss.

Positions were liquidated, people fired and a more modest business model adopted. But it shows that unwelcome surprises can come from units that appear to offer steady if unspectacular returns, if the principal-agent conflict described isn’t carefully managed.

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