Oil and Gas Growth Powered by U.S.

Last year the U.S. set a new world record for annual increase in production of oil and gas by any country in history. The recently-released BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 highlights these and many other useful facts.

U.S. Sets Record in Oil Production

U.S. sets World Record in Natural Gas Production

Total U.S. energy consumption rose by 3.5% last year, the fastest in 30 years and a surprising jump following a decade of no growth. Growth in population and GDP have normally been offset by lower energy intensity and improving efficiency. But periods of extreme weather (both excessive heat and cold) boosted energy demand, as well increased use of ethane for America’s resurgent petrochemicals industry.

US Annual Energy Consumption

The U.S. was one fifth of the 2018 increase in global energy consumption, with China and India together representing half. Climate change and CO2 emissions figured prominently in the report. Developed countries desire lower emissions and emerging countries higher living standards. China consumes 42% more energy than the U.S., a gap that will grow in the decades ahead. The resolution of these conflicting goals dominates the outcome.

Per Capita Oil Consumption US v China and India

So it’s worth noting that the Asia-Pacific region energy consumption is more than double North America’s, and half of this comes from coal. The difference in coal volumes is by a factor of 8X. China alone consumes 6X as much coal as the U.S. But to illustrate unmet energy demand, China and India’s per capita consumption of crude oil is only 10% that of the U.S.

World Energy Consumption by Fuel

Until we confront these twin issues, little else that’s done to reduce emissions will have much impact.

Global carbon emissions grew by 600 million tons, or around 2%, the fastest for many years. This is the equivalent of increasing the global passenger car fleet by a third. Last week, India’s Adani Mining won Australian regulatory approval to begin developing one of the world’s largest untapped coalmines. Its critics contend that this project alone will eventually add 700 million tons of CO2 emissions, exceeding last year’s global increase from all sources. This is where India’s desire for more energy to raise living standards manifests itself. New York’s environmental extremists opposing a new natural gas pipeline might consider where the real problem lies.

Increased use of renewables alone will not solve the issues of climate change. BP notes that simply maintaining carbon emissions from the power sector at 2015 levels would have required growth in renewables generation at more than double the actual rate. The additional output is equal to all of the U.S. and China’s 2018 energy output from renewables.

US Natural Gas and Renewables Consumption

Natural gas provided 43% of the additional power the world consumed, more than twice that provided by renewables. For all the excitement about increasing use of solar and wind, their share rose by 1.4%. 84.7% of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels in 2018, versus 85.1% in 2017. As Bill Gates and others have pointed out, R&D should be directed towards making the 85% less carbon intensive, rather than trying to replace what obviously works.

Netpower is developing the ability to generate electricity from natural gas with no emissions, which would represent a significant breakthrough if successful.

It’s still possible to find writers warning of a production collapse because of shale’s chronic unprofitability.  An article on Seeking Alpha (see Here’s Why Oil Stocks Are Priced For Armageddon) or Bethany Mclean’s Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World both reflect a simplistic view. Exxon Mobil (XOM), now the biggest driller in the Permian, clearly finds it profitable. Anadarko had two suitors for its Permian assets. Volumes keep growing, in defiance of some writers’ claims to better understand the economics.

BP’s report showed that the 2.2 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) of increased global crude oil production came from the U.S., a point echoed in Plains All American’s (PAA) Investor Day.

The path to lower global emissions requires far more use of nuclear power, far less coal use in China and India, and more R&D into using existing energy sources more efficiently. Otherwise, investments in seawalls and flood mitigation will be a safer bet.

We are invested in PAA, via Plains GP Holdings.

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).

Plain Talk, Fuzzy Math

Plains All American (PAA) held their investor day last week. Continued growth in output from the Permian in West Texas is driving new pipeline construction, for which PAA is at the forefront. Limited pipeline capacity has hurt economics for some drillers that have resorted to trucks to move their crude, which is far more expensive.

PAA’s Supply and Logistics (S&L) business thrives on infrastructure constraints, since it allows them to exploit basis differentials using spare capacity on their pipeline network. From 2014-17 S&L EBITDA collapsed by 90%, as spare capacity came online. It has since rebounded to $450MM, around two thirds of its 2014 peak.

One analyst asked about the impact of new pipelines, both on the S&L business (where PAA expects to see EBITDA drop 50% next year) as well as on existing pipelines which face possible cannibalization of demand:

“You’re creating your own weather when you think of the S&L impact…there’s a lot of moving parts here…Loss of marketing, loss of basin flows, loss of potentially some spot barrels on Bridgetex”

Executives wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the impact in more detail, which was a pity because an investor day is supposed to offer an opportunity to dig more deeply into a company’s business. The response was:

“The guidance for this year fully reflects our views of how that impact is…we’ll give guidance later in the year for 2020… I don’t think we’re going to specifically work towards guidance during this meeting today, that’s not the intent.”

This interaction captures the conundrum facing investors. The Shale Revolution’s dramatic increase in oil and gas production isn’t yet profiting midstream infrastructure investors. One reason is fear that the industry will overbuild, pressuring pipeline tariffs and leading to projects that fail to cover their cost of capital.

PAA laudably tried to demonstrate financial discipline with two slides illustrating how they think about their cost of capital versus their return on invested capital. For any company, the spread between these two is the main source of profits.

Cost of Capital PAA

So it was disappointing to see errors and omissions. Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) as a cost of equity was based simply on the current DCF yield without adding anticipated long term growth, though investors are told to expect such growth of 10% this year and presumably further growth beyond.

Return on Invested Capital PAA

The problem in using current EBITDA as the basis for assessing projects is that it doesn’t reflect the long term return on assets with years of useful life and fluctuating tariffs. It omits corporate overhead, maintenance, cost for potential delays and cost overruns. Most investors calculate the net present value of cashflows from a proposed investment, discounted using a rate appropriate to the risk.

How PAA Should Calculate its Cost of Capital

PAA isn’t calculating their cost of equity properly. More correct would be to use the dividend yield plus long term expected growth rate. The growth rate is derived from the portion of retained earnings not paid out (i.e.  1 minus the payout ratio) times the return on equity, which PAA shows has historically been 19.5%.

Although they’re targeting 130-150% coverage of their distribution, it’s currently 2X. Raising the dividend such that it was 150% covered would give them a yield of 8.5% (versus 6.37% currently). 150% coverage  equals a 67% payout ratio. 1 minus the payout ratio, or 33%, times their 19.5% ROE, implies a 6.5% growth rate, which should be added to the projected 8.5% dividend yield.

So PAA’s own figures and assumptions suggest their cost of equity is really around 15%, not the 12.1% they presented. PAA’s Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC), using their desired 55/45 equity/debt split and with a 4.25% interest rate on their debt, is almost 10.2%, 1.6% higher than they presented.

Since they seek an investment return of 3-5% above their WACC, any project needs a return of 13-15%. Riskier projects need an even higher return than this. The Alpha Crude Connector acquisition failed to meet this hurdle.

This minimum return on new projects is further illustrated through their desired leverage of 3-3.5X Debt:EBITDA. Assuming they continue to finance their investments with 45% debt, anything new must have an EBITDA multiple (i.e. cost of investment divided by EBITDA) of no higher than 7X. 3.25 leverage (the midpoint of their 3-3.5 range) divided by 45% debt share of finance is 7.2, which equates to around 14% (1 divided by 7.2), the midpoint of the required return we calculated based on their WACC.

The 55/45 ratio between equity and debt could be unsustainable if EBITDA falls. For example, a manageable 4X Debt:EBITDA leverage ratio would become an unsustainable 8X if EBITDA later dropped by half. Building in the possibility of lower tariffs in the future means debt should be less than 45% of the capital, which raises the WACC since equity is more expensive.

It’s also why you want to own strategic assets that don’t face huge drop-offs in revenues after initial contracts expire.

The flaw in PAA’s math can be illustrated by showing that they’d be willing to raise capital at today’s cost to buy an identical enterprise to their own, with identical EBITDA. Using their own cost of capital and 2019 EBITDA, they’d value this twin at over $33BN. Adjusting for debt, the twin’s equity would be worth $24BN, compared with PAA’s current market cap of only $17BN. Their math allows that PAA could pay up to a 39% premium to buy a business identical to what they own before the acquisition would no longer be accretive.

This is why investors are usually unenthusiastic when management teams announce another growth project. PAA, like most of its peers, should be more willing to repurchase shares.

The stock’s poor performance over the past five years is due to poor capital allocation decisions, probably driven by faulty logic such as described here.

No sell-side analyst pointed this out, but the shareholders who have lived it understand the flaws in PAA’ internal investment process.

Meanwhile, PAA is a cheap stock, trading at just 8X cash flows that are growing, assuming management is more prudent with investors’ money than over the past five years. The industry’s fortunes will turn on correctly calculating the spread between cost of, versus the return on, invested capital.

We are invested in PAA, via Plains GP Holdings.

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).

Miscounting America’s Crude

Wednesday’s report on crude oil stocks from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed a sharp jump in storage of 1 million barrels per day (MMB/D). Given the already fragile mood around tariffs slowing GDP growth, crude oil prices predictably slumped.

Interestingly though, over the past year the “Adjustment”, or fudge factor which is used to make the numbers add up, has grown substantially.

In simple terms, the EIA counts production, exports, imports, change in storage and refinery usage. This should pick up every barrel of oil moving through the U.S. It must frustrate the EIA’s number crunchers that the figures never foot, so they use a balancing item which used to be called “Unaccounted for Crude Oil”, nowadays simply the Adjustment. Since June 2018, the Adjustment has almost tripled.

Over the past year, crude oil used by U.S. refineries has been stable. Because much of America’s increased production is light crude from the Permian ill-suited to domestic refineries, imports have also remained unchanged. Higher exports have absorbed most of the increase in output.

The Adjustment exists solely because one of the other figures is wrong. So we’re refining more, exporting more, importing less, storing less or producing more than reported. Of these five different items, some should be easier to measure than others. The refinery figure seems unlikely to be far wrong; refineries must know what they’re using and there are 135 refineries in the U.S. from which to gather information.

Similarly, imports must surely be correct since the government licenses imports, and counting exports would also seem reasonably straightforward – the number of points of exports (cross-border pipelines and crude-loading export facilities) are known and not that numerous.

However, in reviewing the EIA’s methodology for calculating exports, they rely heavily on data from the U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) as well as figures from Statistics Canada (since exports to Canada don’t require a U.S. export license). The EIA runs the data through estimation models that they believe improve its accuracy. In some cases they’re using monthly data, even though their report is weekly.

There are many types of petroleum product beyond crude oil, including finished motor gasoline, kerosene, distillate and residual fuel oil among others. And the granting of an export license need not coincide with the physical shipment of the product. So it’s a more complex task than you might suppose.

Storage would also seem straightforward. Storage terminals are hard to miss. So the 967 thousand barrels per day (MB/D) build in storage ought to be reliable. Since the prior week saw a 41 MB/D decrease in storage, crude traders inferred softening demand.

But storage has its own complexity, since crude oil sitting on a tanker awaiting unloading is, in effect, floating storage. A possibility suggested by one sell-side firm is that floating storage was drawn down sharply. This presumes that several million barrels of crude was in tankers bobbing within U.S. territorial waters, already counted as imported but not yet unloaded. If true, this would mean the apparent jump in onshore storage was offset by a drawdown in floating storage, making the report far less bearish.

While this could explain the sudden, one-time shift in the storage figure, the Adjustment was the same last week, which undercuts the logic behind this explanation.

This brings us back to production, currently estimated at 12.4 MMB/D. Of the line items in the EIA’s report, it seems to us that this one is most plausibly the source of the growing Adjustment. There are around a million wells in the U.S. producing crude oil, from some decades old dribbling out a few barrels a day to new Permian wells producing 10 MB/D or more. We think it’s likely that the EIA is somehow undercounting crude oil output.

Flaring of associated natural gas in the Permian recently hit 661 million cubic feet per day (MMCF/D), up sharply from the previous high late last year of 450 MMCF/D. This reflects growing crude oil production. The continued shortage of take away infrastructure in the region to handle the natural gas that is extracted with the crude oil is why there’s more flaring.

Nobody really knows why the EIA’s weekly report includes an error term that is growing embarrassingly large. Robert Merriam, director of the office of petroleum and biofuels statistics at the EIA, admitted, “There’s something more systematic going on that our surveys aren’t capturing. We have some theories on what that may be and we’re trying to look into it.”

Undercounting crude oil production seems the most likely explanation. If so, this would reinforce a couple of important themes:

1) The U.S. continues to gain market share in world energy markets

2) Growing volumes even with moderate pricing defy those who argue that much of our shale activity is unprofitable

Oil and gas production continue to surprise to the upside, which can only be good for midstream energy infrastructure.

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).

Pipelines Moving Up and Left: More Return With Less Risk

The Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) is a widely accepted theoretical framework for valuing securities. An important feature is the Efficient Frontier. This reflects the concept that, although there’s an almost infinite number of portfolios that an investor can hold (think of all the individual stocks and bonds out there), a small number of these portfolios offer a combination of return and risk that’s better than most.

Efficient Frontier

For example, if two portfolios had the same risk, the one with the higher return would be preferable. We can always figure out with hindsight what was the efficient portfolio — identifying the right one going forward is more difficult.

CAPM is a useful theoretical framework but has its shortcomings. One of the biggest is the idea that more risky investments deliver a higher return. It seems intuitively self-evident, but there’s plenty of research to show it’s not true. Beta, a measure of how risky a stock is compared to the market (which has a Beta of 1.0), suggests that high beta stocks (Beta > 1.0) should deliver higher returns than the market. Otherwise, investors wouldn’t own high beta stocks because they wouldn’t be getting sufficiently compensated for the increased risk.

The real world often fails to conform to neat algebraic solutions, and it turns out that low beta stocks do better. They don’t move as much and offer less excitement. Low Beta stocks receive less coverage on CNBC, since traders want movement. But they are Aesop’s tortoise, reaching the finish line ahead of their more energetic competition.

This weakness in CAPM is called the Low Beta Anomaly, and for those interested in learning more you can read Why the Tortoise Beats the Hare.

Returning to the Efficient Frontier, although we can’t be certain what investments provide the most CAPM efficiency, we can make informed assumptions about whether they’re becoming more or less attractive within this framework. Investors complain about heightened volatility in midstream, and likely assume more of the same in assessing the sector. For many, Energy infrastructure sits well within the Efficient Frontier boundary, making it unattractive.

Investor Perspective of Pipeline Sector

But Energy Infrastructure, as we wrote last week (see Pipeline Stocks Get That Warm Feeling Again), is becoming less volatile, especially when compared with broad energy as represented by the S&P Energy ETF (XLE). On the Efficient Frontier chart, this is moving it to the left, meaning it’s becoming less risky.

Returns are also improving, as defined by Free Cash Flow (FCF) generation. We wrote about this a few weeks ago (see The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher). The members of the broad-based American Energy Independence Index generated just $1BN in FCF last year, which is an inconsequential return on around $540BN in market cap. However, a combination of lower spending on new projects (lower growth capex) plus improving cash flow from existing assets (higher Distributable Cash Flow, DCF) is set to boost sector FCF significantly over the next three years. By 2021 the $45BN in FCF we estimate would produce a FCF yield of over 8%, higher than the S&P500.

Pipeline Sector Free Cash Flow

Making volatility forecasts is an imprecise task, and most investors will be satisfied with using historical data. This shows decreasing volatility, or risk. But it’s certainly possible to make return forecasts and they don’t need to have any relationship with recent history. Rising FCF should persuade investors that their return assumption for the sector can be revised up.

In the context of CAPM, higher return with less risk mean that the sector is shifting up and to the left, making it more attractive. The Efficient Frontier is a theoretical concept, and investments selected from along that line can all be judged efficient, with the different combination of return and risk reflecting investor preference.

Improving Return and Risk

As this virtuous combination of rising return with falling volatility becomes apparent, we think some investors will conclude that midstream energy infrastructure lies beyond the Efficient Frontier. This should attract inflows from investors who use this type of framework to assess opportunities.

When CAPM provides a buy signal, the much-sought generalist investor will have finally turned to pipelines. Over the next couple of years, the sector should benefit from this development.

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).

Pipeline Stocks Get That Warm Feeling Again

A common concern of both existing and potential investors in energy infrastructure is the relatively high volatility of recent years. Many recall the “toll-model” of pipelines that was the basis of their appeal prior to 2014. As we have often written, the Shale Revolution broke the MLP model, as companies with very high payout ratios and hitherto minimal growth projects set about adding infrastructure. Oil in North Dakota, natural gas in Pennsylvania and increasing volumes of crude in west Texas required new investments (see It’s the Distributions, Stupid). The income-seeking investors originally attracted by high yields wound up in growth businesses that prioritized reducing leverage and funding projects over maintaining distributions.

Our theory is that this one-time alienation of the core investor base was highly disruptive and led to a period of heightened volatility. The shift in MLP business model from income generating to growth coincided with a sharp downturn in the energy sector. Investors worried about the profitability of upstream exploration and production companies showed similar concern over midstream. Even though EBITDA grew and leverage fell for pipeline stocks during this period, the sector moved with the energy sector.

There are signs that this period of heightened volatility is coming to a close. When energy markets bottomed in early 2016, the average daily percentage move of the Alerian MLP index reached almost 2.0X that of the S&P Energy Sector ETF (XLE). In late 2017 the ratio was briefly even higher. Since then, this relationship has improved dramatically in favor of these toll-like business models, falling by more than half and approaching the range that prevailed 7+ years ago.

This shift is even more dramatic than it seems, because the Alerian MLP index has been steadily losing components, rendering it less diversified and therefore more prone to sharp moves than it would otherwise be. Investors continue to exit mutual funds and ETFs tied to MLPs, as shown by the steady drop in shares outstanding for the Alerian MLP ETF.

Pipelines Beating SP500

Nonetheless, relative performance for the sector more broadly defined to include corporations has held up very well. The American Energy Independence Index (80% corporations and 20% MLPs, more reflective of the sector’s market cap of 2/3rds corporations) has retained its solid lead over the S&P500 this year, and is substantially ahead of XLE, especially following last week’s market weakness.

Midstream beating XLE

A plausible explanation is that, although retail investors are shunning MLP-only funds, institutional buyers are beginning to commit capital to pipeline corporations. Converting from MLPs to corporations was driven by a desire for a broader, more stable investor base. Although there are fewer MLPs remaining, they include conservatively run companies such as Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) and Magellan Midstream (MMP). There are some good MLPs to own.  However, some investors are starting to conclude that MLPs are too small a subset to command a sector allocation, and they’re more appropriate within a diversified portfolio that includes corporations.

Retail Investors selling MLPs

The relative volatility of midstream infrastructure is reverting back to the lower levels that prevailed before the Shale Revolution triggered the need for large infrastructure investments. Moreover, free cash flow is set to jump over the next three years (see The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher). This will continue to attract generalist investors interested in attractively valued stocks with declining volatility.

The pipeline sector is showing good momentum to continue its outperformance, driven by institutional buyers gradually replacing the retail holders of narrow, MLP-only funds.

We are invested in EPD and MMP. We are short AMLP.

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).

Better Odds With Pipelines

The mood at the 2019 Midstream Energy Infrastructure Conference was noticeably more positive than in the past couple of years. Perhaps relocating from Orlando to Las Vegas helped. Hope for positive financial outcomes is in the local DNA, and pipeline investors could smugly remind themselves that the best odds were not in the casino. Attendance seemed to be higher than in the recent past, and demand for one-on-one meetings with management teams (the point of attending for many, including ourselves) was reportedly up sharply.

Investors keep pounding away on planned growth capex, and companies are generally responding by guiding to less spending this year and next while still emphasizing their slate of attractive opportunities. We checked our assumptions underlying The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher in several meetings and still see a substantial jump in industry free cash flow over the next three years.



Henry & Simon MEIC



New pipelines are becoming harder to build. New York recently blocked a natural gas pipeline planned by Williams Companies (WMB) because of environmental concerns, although WMB plans to reapply. Canada is becoming a more difficult and expensive place in which to build (other than in oil-rich Alberta). Enbridge (ENB) went as far as to say they wouldn’t attempt a new, greenfield crude oil pipeline in Canada. They regard the permitting process as capricious, hijacked by a small minority of vocal environmental activists that don’t reflect the public interest.

Impeding new construction simply increases the value of the existing asset base. It also means that today’s dominant firms will maintain their market positions in the future; this is not an industry where a disruptive start-up has realistic prospects.

It also creates an unusual alignment of interests between anti-fossil fuel, environmental activists and investors who are clamoring for a greater return of cash to owners. Both are opposed to new spending, albeit for different reasons.

Tellurian (TELL) is developing a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) export complex. Their unusual financing model involves raising equity capital from customers. In this way they share some of the project’s upside and create key long term partnerships. They see growing Permian crude production leading to a huge jump in associated natural gas output, creating the need for an additional 20 Billion Cubic Feet per day (BCF/D) of LNG export capacity.

Incidentally, in a panel on LNG, Andy Orekar of Gaslog Partners said that if all the world’s shipping converted to LNG (because of the impending IMO 2020 standards on maritime emissions) it would consume more than all of the current trade in LNG. Currently, gas-powered ships are limited to LNG tankers that consume a small portion of their cargo for power. It’s a theoretical point since the industry is installing sulfur scrubbers and switching to cleaner crude oil-based fuels, but an interesting one nonetheless.

Today the U.S. exports around 4 BCF/D. Because natural gas is an inevitable byproduct of crude production in the Permian, TELL expects the economics of oil to drive more gas output which will need to be sent somewhere. They believe the Permian may produce as much as 30BCF/D, creating a need for almost all proposed LNG projects. Increased domestic consumption and pipeline exports to Mexico will only soak up so much, with seaborne LNG exports being critical to avoid constraints on crude production. Flaring unwanted natural gas is limited, and the larger companies that are now dominating Permian activity are especially likely to avoid the negative publicity associated with such obvious waste.

Private equity has developed into an alternative source of financing for midstream infrastructure since public market valuations essentially render equity financing prohibitive. This highlights the contrast between how public and private markets view the sector. Although private funds can compete effectively for projects, it’s also made exits harder, leading to longer holding periods that can reduce returns. The traditional arbitrage, in which public buyers acquire assets at higher multiples than paid by private equity, is currently being reversed. This reflects the continued public market wariness of midstream energy infrastructure, and highlights currently attractive valuations.

Most firms now have a set of policies covering ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance). This is regarded by some as a requirement for drawing in generalist investor interest. One company noted that European investors were more likely to use ESG as a screening metric, and reported that they had seen a notable pick up in interest from non-traditional investors in response to their adopting ESG policies. Mentioning Energy Transfer (ET) in the context of ESG invariably draws a chuckle (see Why Energy Transfer Can’t Get Respect)

A meeting with Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) produced some useful insights. They regard U.S. crude oil export infrastructure as still catching up with volumes. Building a facility to accommodate Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) is an important objective for them. The application to build this terminal was 13,000 pages and weighed 100 lbs.

EPD also sees very strong Chinese demand for U.S. exports of ethane and propane, with the current trade dispute not regarded as a long-term problem.

The “War on Plastics” led them to point out the slide shown below, which highlights how much of global plastics pollution can be traced back to ineffective disposal among some Asian countries.

Poor Plastics Disposal

Overall, the news was good and growing free cash flows are beginning to draw interest from a wider pool of investors. We left with reinforced conviction that valuations are excessively pessimistic. Strong returns lie ahead.

We are invested in ENB, EPD, ET, TELL and WMB.

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).

Why Energy Transfer Can’t Get Respect

If Energy Transfer (ET) was a private company contemplating an IPO, the 15% Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) yield indicated by their underwriters would draw laughter. The bankers would be ushered out of the conference room.

Yet that is the lowly valuation investors assign to perhaps the least loved pipeline company in a sector that investors find lukewarm at best. ET is priced far below where they’d take the company public, if it wasn’t already a listed company. CEO Kelcy Warren and his team continue to execute and beat expectations on earnings. Last August Kelcy joked that, “A monkey could make money in this business right now.” (see Running Pipelines is Easy). Inviting critics to find fault, they nonetheless still deliver good results. Unlike most MLPs, ET (legacy Energy Transfer Equity) has never cut its distribution.

The market prefers style over substance, for on the soft issues of PR and Investor Relations (IR), ET’s record is sharply at odds with their financial performance. From their ill-fated pursuit of Williams Companies (WMB), the dubious dilution of shareholders with management-only convertible preferreds (see Will Energy Transfer Act with Integrity?) and the optically poor dispute over the Dakota Access Pipeline, this is a company that cares little about its image. Pennsylvania’s huge natural gas boom has been helped by a generally pro-energy regulatory regime, but ET has even managed to make enemies there.

ET’s PR staff must get combat pay.

Warren Buffett recently explained how Berkshire’s (BRK) $10BN investment in Occidental (OXY) was negotiated with no contingencies (save that they acquire Anadarko). Buffett needs to trust his investment partners. On this basis, ET is an implausible candidate for a BRK investment.

On the 1Q19 earnings call, Kelcy commented on how he is listening to the market. He’s been, “…trying to understand what the market would like to see us to do. What causes our unit price to perform better, in other words.”

Our advice would be start behaving like the kind of company that would interest Buffett.

ET’s 1Q19 earnings included EBITDA of $2.8BN and distribution coverage was ample at 2.07X. This exceeded expectations, although the 8% yield suggests some fear a cut. They guided to $10.7BN in 2019 adjusted EBITDA. ET’s stock had weakened over the prior month, so expectations weren’t high. Nonetheless, on the day following earnings ET slumped 1.3%, twice the drop in the broad-based American Energy Independence Index.

Kelcy Warren might compare ET with another big pipeline company, Plains All American (PAGP). If ET has delivered consistently good operating results distorted by a bad corporate image, PAGP has done the opposite. Their distribution relied unwisely on a volatile business segment (Supply and Logistics, S&L) whose arbitrage margins virtually disappeared from 2013 to 2017. The narrative accompanying results changed from “it’s skill not luck” to “forces out of our control”. The 2016 sweetheart “One and Done” preferred deal to shore up finances was anything but.

DCF Yield Growth ET vs PAGP

PAGP’s 2017 acquisition of the Alpha Crude Connector was ill-advised, and along with other growth projects exposed too-high leverage when margins fell. As a result, investors in PAGP subsequently suffered two distribution cuts.  Back in 2010 when the shale oil boom was in its infancy, PAA yield seeking investors received $3.75/unit in distributions.  In 2018 they received just $1.20 per unit.  It’s why income-seeking investors often feel so betrayed by MLPs. Nonetheless, the market has not punished PAGP’s stock as much as ET’s, although it’s also cheap. Former CEO Greg Armstrong’s folksy style created sufficient goodwill among investors that PAGP has a distribution yield a third less than ET’s. Their DCF and free cash flow are growing, but not as fast as at ET.

PAGP’s 1Q19 results were also good, buoyed by their resurgent S&L segment. Their 10% DCF yield reflects some concern that past mistakes will be repeated, and arbitrage margins are hard to forecast because they rely on shortages of pipeline capacity which can be fleeting. But their IR people at least have a more positive corporate image against which to tell their story.

As if to punctuate attractive valuations, on Friday Buckeye (BPL) was acquired at a 32% premium to its recent average price. BPL’s foray into international storage terminals led to chronic underperformance in recent years that even the buyout hasn’t rectified. They have mismanaged themselves into a takeover, at pricing substantially higher than ET’s.

Both ET and PAGP are cheap. They each possess skills that would benefit the other. ET’s rebarbative management style contrasts with their efficient execution and strategic foresight, an area where PAGP needs to regain credibility after mis-steps in recent years. ET walks the walk, and PAGP talks the talk.

If each company can improve its weaknesses, they’ll continue to draw investors to an extremely cheap sector offering substantial growth.

We are invested in BRK, ET, PAGP, and WMB.

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).

Buffett Finds Value in Shale

Warren Buffett likes the Permian Basin. This was clear from Berkshire’s (BRK) proposed $10BN preferred investment in Occidental (OXY) should they buy Anadarko (APC). Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting was followed as usual with a Becky Quick interview on CNBC.

Buffet OXY Deal

The 8% dividend on the preferred OXY will issue to finance their acquisition could be inducement enough for BRK to commit $10BN. When Becky commented on this Buffett responded “It isn’t great to have an 8% preferred if there isn’t any oil there.   It’s a bet on oil prices over the long term more than anything else and it’s also a bet on the fact that the Permian basin is what’s it’s cracked up to be. … You have to have a view on oil over time and Charlie and I have got some views on that.”

This led Becky to ask why BRK didn’t use some of its cash hoard to buy Anardarko for $35BN, to which Buffett replied “Well, that might have happened if Anadarko had come to us.”  Buffett was quick to clarify that he wouldn’t jump in to a bidding war with someone who has come to them for financing. Buffett wants more supplicants for similar deals. But it does show that they see value in the Permian Basin, OXY and APC.

The competition between Chevron (CVX) and OXY to buy APC provides further confirmation of a bullish production outlook among those with the best information. CVX and OXY were the two biggest producers in the Permian last year, each pumping over 300 thousand barrels per day (MB/D). APC did 100 MB/D. They know the region. Rystad Energy believes that a CVX/APC combination would reach almost 1.4 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D) in output by 2025. A match-up of OXY/APC would get to 0.9 MMB/D. Permian volumes are growing fast, and the influx of additional capital makes this even more likely. Midstream energy infrastructure is a sure winner.

As always, Buffett had some wonderful folksy quips. In discussing his 60-year partnership with Charlie Munger, he noted that they’d often disagreed but never had an argument. Munger sometimes concludes such debates with, “You’ll agree with me soon, because you’re smart and I’m right.”

Try using that at home with your significant other. Let us know how it goes – we’ll publish any credible stories.

Buffett and Munger aren’t overly concerned about the latest ratcheting up of trade tensions. They believe both sides will benefit from concluding a deal. We agree that trade tensions are unlikely to be a factor entering 2020 when Trump is running for re-election (see The Trump Put).  One easy way to reduce the trade deficit is for China to increase it’s purchases of raw materials from the U.S. This could include huge amounts of LNG, natural gas liquids such as propane, and light crude oil that they desperately want and need.

If the dispute is drawn out, planned Chinese purchases of U.S. Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) are at risk. But LNG is fungible, and U.S. exports could displace trade to other Asian countries whose shipments would in turn head to China. Cheniere Energy (ticker: LNG) and Chinese energy firm Sinopec are planning a 20 year LNG deal once the trade negotiations are concluded.

While a full-blown trade war that severely damages global GDP growth can have a meaningful impact on oil demand and oil prices, a resolution should boost demand and clear the way for Chinese buyers to sign long-term contracts from U.S oil and gas exporters.

Moreover, the U.S. just dispatched aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf so as to, “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime…” The Shale Revolution has improved America’s ability to press our interests since we are so much less dependent on Middle East oil. Trump is not one to shy away from a fight. We won’t forecast how events with Iran will play out – but domestic energy investments are one of the safer places to be if there is conflict with Iran.

With historically low valuations for the energy sector, record oil & gas production, and solid growth prospects, the weekend’s news is showing energy to be one of the most overlooked areas in the market.

We are long BRK.

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).

Pipeline Earnings Good; Investors Skeptical

We’re in the middle of earnings season, and last week several companies provided 1Q reports. The energy sector continues to struggle to excite investors. Although pipelines stocks delivered very strong performance through March, in recent weeks investors have started to question the rally’s resilience.

As a result, sentiment could use a boost from strong earnings. Of the companies we follow, results so far have been at or ahead of expectations. Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) generated almost $2BN in EBITDA during 1Q19, handily beating forecasts. On the earnings call they discussed the conversion of their Seminole pipeline to carry crude oil instead of Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) from the Permian to Mount Belvieu: “…given its location and interconnects, we will always have flexibility to convert this pipeline back to NGL service depending on the pipeline supply demand balances for crude oil and NGLs in the future. I doubt that anyone else will be able to offer this type of future flexibility to Permian producers and to markets.” We get some questions about the likelihood of excess pipeline capacity in the Permian, and this optionality is useful.

There was another interesting exchange on propane exports, where EPD conceded to a drop in market share from 80% to around 50%. They’ve concluded that their pricing was too high, and plan to be more competitive. Energy Transfer (ET) CEO Kelcy Warren complained on their fourth quarter call about spending to protect his turf from competition from fringe private equity projects.  EPD shares the same distaste for new, greenfield projects competing with more economic brownfield expansions on their existing footprint. EPD CEO Jim Teague commented that, “…we’re not going to make the mistake of having prices that (and) invite more competition.”

Takeaway infrastructure for Permian crude production often comes with associated natural gas. Inadequate takeaway infrastructure has led to flaring, and recently pushed prices at the Waha hub collection point negative. On April 3rd, some Exploration and Production (E&P) companies paid $9 per MCF to dispose of natural gas.  Forward price remain negative through 2021.  The crude oil that they’re seeking is sufficiently profitable to cover this additional overhead. Under the circumstances, one might think E&P companies would be pushing for additional natural gas takeaway infrastructure. However, Williams Companies (WMB) CEO Alan Armstrong reported that few were willing to commit volumes on terms to support such an investment.

Earnings reported so far support our free cash flow bridge below, first published last week.

Pipeline Sector Free Cash Flow

WMB earnings were in-line with expectations, and their 2019 growth capex guidance was lowered by $200MM to a range of $2.3BN to $2.5BN.

Capex guidance was generally among the more keenly examined numbers, given past years’ focus on growth projects. Last week we noted that such investment peaked last year, which is supporting growing free cash flow (see The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher).

Oneok (OKE) logged 12% year-on-year distribution growth, with Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) providing 1.43X coverage while continuing to advance key projects on schedule. Lower payout ratios are the new normal, to provide more flexibility and reduced need to issue equity.

Enlink (ENLC) disappointed with lowered guidance for 2019 natural gas output from Oklahoma, although their overall report was within expectations. Its 14% DCF yield is very attractive and we like the management team.

Crestwood (CEQP) raised 2019 EBITDA and DCF guidance with continued strength from their Bakken assets,and expects 20% DCF growth through next year. Their 13% DCF yield seems unreasonably high.

Western Gas (WES) reported 7% annual distribution growth, but the competition to buy parent Anadarko (APC) will dominate their performance until it’s resolved.

With Occidental (OXY) outbidding Chevron (CVX) for APC, many are surprised that the consolidation and implied vote of confidence in shale from a major oil company isn’t drawing in more support for the energy sector. Berkshire’s (BRK) proposed $10BN investment in OXY via 8% preferred securities with warrants for 80 million shares at an exercise price of $62.50 represents either (a) a valuable endorsement of growing U.S. oil production, or (b) proof of the high cost of capital facing a still unloved energy sector. Whichever it is, the APC M&A saga can surely only be good for midstream energy infrastructure.

More earnings reports are due next week. So far, what we’ve seen is increased capital discipline, lower leverage, growing cash flows and higher coverage ratios. This is consistent with our overall, constructive outlook for the sector.

We are invested in BRK, CEQP, EPD, ENLC, ET, OKE, WES and WMB.

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).


The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher

Pipeline company earnings are being scrutinized for capital investment plans.  The energy sector’s pursuit of growth has been well covered. Investors would prefer less excitement and more return on capital through dividends and buybacks. Company management teams are for the most part grudgingly co-operating.  Targa (TRGP) CEO Joe Bob Perkins defiantly described growth projects as “capital blessings”. TRGP promptly dropped 5%. Owners want more cash returned.

Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) is the cash return from existing assets. REIT investors know it as Funds From Operations (FFO), an equivalent measure. Because DCF excludes spending on new projects, it reflects steady-state cash earned before growth initiatives. This is why DCF or FFO are commonly used in evaluating businesses whose returns come from large fixed assets, such as infrastructure and real estate.

Free Cash Flow (FCF) is the net cash generated (or spent) after considering DCF, growth projects and any financings and asset sales (i.e. after everything). It’s common for companies that are investing heavily to have little or negative FCF. Investors in such stocks ultimately expect FCF commensurate with sums invested.

Exploiting the Shale Revolution has boosted growth capex by billions of dollars, both for upstream companies as well as the midstream infrastructure sector. It’s why FCF has substantially lagged DCF in recent years. Although today’s income statements don’t show it, a combination of slowing growth capex and rising DCF will cause pipeline companies to produce vastly more FCF.

We examined all the names in the American Energy Independence Index (AEITR), which provides broad exposure to North American midstream corporations along with a few MLPs. On a bottom up basis, FCF was just over $1BN last year, a paltry figure given the industry’s $514BN market cap.

The need for growth capital broke the MLP model (see It’s the Distributions, Stupid!). Their narrow set of income-seeking investors wasn’t willing to support the growing secondary offerings of equity without higher yields. Companies needed to find the cash somewhere, so four years of distribution cuts followed – for example, the Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP) has cut its payout by 36% since 2014, reflecting reduced distributions by the names in its index.

The industry is over the hump of its spending on growth projects. Analysts look carefully for “capex creep” whereby annual guidance for new spending gets revised upward during the year. But based on current bottom-up guidance for the AEITR, we expect such spending to be down 4% this year, with >20% reductions in 2020 and 2021.

Recently completed projects are starting to show up in higher DCF, which we estimate will grow by 8% this year and 12% in 2020. A 90% completed pipeline isn’t much use, and multi-year construction projects only generate cash when they’re completed and paid for.

Making more money from existing assets, while spending less on new ones, is a potent combination. By 2021, FCF is set to be close to what DCF was in 2018. Moreover, much of today’s growth is internally funded, meaning little reliance on issuing equity. Based on current guidance, Transcanada (TRP) is the only company likely to tap the equity markets meaningfully, as construction of the perennially delayed Keystone XL gets under way.

As a result, last year’s sector-wide $1BN in FCF is set to jump eightfold this year, more than triple in 2020, and increase by two thirds again in 2021. It’s why dividend growth is back (see Pipeline Dividends Are Heading Up). Our analysis assumed no new debt issuance, which therefore assumes leverage will continue to decline. To the extent that the industry maintains current Debt:EBITDA ratios by issuing more debt, FCF will grow more than our forecast.

The “bridge” chart illustrates annual FCF 2018-21 with the changes in DCF and growth capex forming the bridge from each year’s FCF to the next.

Pipeline Sector Free Cash Flow

The Shale Revolution has long been described as a huge boost for America, including on this blog. Investors often complain that it’s been a far better story than an investment. The strong start to the year has been a welcome surprise to many long-suffering holders. And yet, a substantial jump in FCF is still not widely expected. The sector has plenty of upside.

We are invested in TRGP and TRP. We are short AMLP.

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).