The Hidden Tax Bite of MLP Funds
Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) are inexorably linked with those annoying K-1s in the minds of many investors, complicating tax reporting. For some people it’s one of the few things they know about MLPs and the muttered warning of their accountants to avoid K-1s keeps them away from the asset class. Direct holdings of MLPs are the most efficient way to invest in the sector, and in my experience the K-1s aren’t that big a deal. MLPs fully understand the barrier tax reporting represent to many potential investors. As a result, almost all MLPs now provide K-1s electronically and they are issued well before the April tax filing deadline. I’ve also yet to identify an accountant who will put a price on the additional cost of including a K-1 in a client’s tax return. Even at $100 each and a dozen K-1s, it’s well worth it for a portfolio of $500K or up invested in MLPs.
Not everybody has that much to invest, and others may nonetheless still prefer a simpler tax return consisting fully of 1099s for their tax reporting. Ten years ago I seeded Alerian Capital Management’s hedge fund when I was at JPMorgan. Much time and many expensive hours of tax advice were spent trying to come up with a way of maintaining the tax deferral benefits available to direct investors in combination with the simpler tax reporting of a 1099. The bottom line is, there is no way to do it. In this respect, the tax code is watertight. You can hold MLPs with K-1s, or you can invest through a vehicle that provides 1099s at the cost of a substantially greater tax burden.
For many years the industry didn’t spend much energy on the less efficient, 1099 route. But in recent years that has changed, as it turns out there is a ready pool of buyers who will sacrifice quite a lot for tax simplicity. In fact, the solution is a pretty blunt instrument in tax terms. Holding MLPs in a corporation (a “40 Act Fund”, which is a mutual fund or exchange traded fund), solves the tax problem by simply paying 35% tax on the returns. You can have MLPs with K1s, or 65% of MLPs with 1099s. Many people choose the latter, to the evident amazement of people in the industry. An example is the Mainstay Cushing MLP Premier Fund (CSHAX and CSHZX). I remember Jerry Swank, Cushing’s CEO, at a conference some years ago commenting with incredulity at the interest in a competitor’s exchange traded fund (ETF) which solved the tax reporting problem with the 35% haircut. But consumers know what they want, and Cushing subsequently provided it to them.
I wonder how many really know what they’re buying? CSHAX sports a yield of 6.34%, slightly above the yield on the Alerian Index of 6%. It invests in MLPs. But looks can be deceptive; CSHAX has underperformed the Lipper Energy MLP Fund for each year of its existence. Its expense ratio for 2013 (the most recent year available) was a whopping 9-10% (depending on the share class). Most of this (around 8%) is the “Deferred Income Tax” expense, which is the 35% Federal corporate income tax bite that the fund pays in order to provide those 1099s. 2013 was a great year for MLPs so the tax drag is unlikely to be that high every year. But it will nonetheless be an ever-present penalty, eating up a portion of results year after year. Due to a quirk in the way yields are reported, the 6.34% yield advertised by CSHAX is essentially what the fund pays BEFORE adjusting its NAV down to reflect the tax liability. The net, after tax result to the investor is inevitably lower, and that’s before they pay their own taxes.
Like many things that retail investors buy, it’s disclosed but probably not understood. ’40 Act companies that maintain MLPs at less than 25% of their holdings qualify for pass-through treatment, which means the deferral characteristics carry through to the investor. It’s the best you can do in terms of holding MLPs and avoiding K-1s. We run a mutual fund that offers this structure.
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