When Will MLPs Recover?

Our blog topics are often informed by the subjects that come up in conversations with clients. October was a wrenching month, with the Alerian MLP index slumping to -6% versus +2% for the S&P500. MLPs have lagged equities by an astonishing 22% YTD. Over the last couple of weeks we have been busier than usual fielding calls from investors. By far the most common question in various forms is, when will MLPs recover?

So, for the benefit of those with whom we haven’t recently chatted but are wondering the same thing, below we summarize our thoughts:

  • Energy sector sentiment. This remains terrible. Investors would still prefer more disciplined capital allocation. Management teams too often seek dilutive growth, often because their compensation isn’t aligned with per-share metrics.
    Midstream energy infrastructure has handily outperformed the E&P sector this year, and capital discipline is improving. But many of the people we talk to are weary, looking for reasons to remain invested and searching for confirmation in their original investment thesis that increasing production should benefit pipelines with their toll-like model. However, there are positive signs here, in that Free Cash Flow for midstream energy infrastructure is set to soar over the next couple of years (see The Coming Pipeline Cash Gusher). Growth capex peaked last year, and existing assets are generating more cash. These are both driving FCF to almost $10BN this year, $27BN next year and $43BN or so in 2021. Recent quarterly earnings generally provided confirmation of this positive trend. For example, Targa Resources (TRGP), one of the worst offenders, has 2020 investment spending plans of $1.2BN, half of this year’s. Former CEO Joe Bob Perkins flippantly talked about new projects as “capital blessings”. Investors won’t miss his self-serving arrogance.
  • Retail investors are selling. Approximately $3.6BN, roughly 7% of the total, has left MLP mutual funds, ETFs and related products in the past twelve months, which creates constant downward pressure on prices. Although our own products have seen net inflows this year, this is not the norm.
  • The MLP business model is probably dead. Pre-2012, pipeline companies organized as MLPs and paid out 90% or more of their cashflow. Back then, America obtained its oil and gas from roughly the same places in the same amounts year after year. Few new pipeline projects were needed, so with little need to retain cash MLPs offered high yields. These attracted income-seeking investors who, because of the K-1s that MLPs issue, tended to be wealthy. In other words, old, rich Americans. The Shale Revolution offered up oil and gas in places not traditionally served by infrastructure – for example, the Bakken in North Dakota and the Marcellus in Pennsylvania. The Permian in west Texas, although long a producing region, saw significant increases in volume. MLPs decided to invest in new pipelines, pressuring balance sheets and ultimately sacrificing distributions. Kinder Morgan was the first to slash its payout, before ultimately simplifying its structure as Kinder Morgan Inc (KMI) absorbed the assets of its MLP, Kinder Morgan Partners (KMP). The rationale for becoming a corporation was to access capital from the world’s institutional equity investors rather than just the old, rich Americans who buy MLPs (see Kinder Morgan: Still Paying for Broken Promises). Most institutions avoid publicly traded partnerships because of complex tax considerations. In the process, original KMP investors, who had invested for stable tax-deferred income, suffered two distribution cuts and a taxable transaction when their units were swapped for shares in KMI. Many thousands remain bitter to this day.  Rich Kinder’s promise of ever rising distributions fueled higher payouts back to his general partner via Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs).
  • Prior to 2014, many investors viewed the distribution as sacred and assumed that Rich would honor his promise to continue paying them.  After realizing they’d been duped into essentially transferring their money to Rich Kinder through this IDR mechanism based on broken promises, they’ve understandably become disillusioned.  If you run into a former KMP investor, ask about their betrayal by Rich Kinder. It’ll be a colorful story.  Other MLPs followed KMI’s lead. MLPs shed their income seeking investor base in their desire to fund growth projects. More distribution cuts and unwelcome tax bills followed. This transition to institutional, total return investors has been far harder than they assumed. The legacy of betrayal continues to hang over the sector. KMI had a slide titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept”, boasting about their 13 years of distribution growth.
    The Alerian MLP ETF has cut its distributions by a third, reflecting similar cuts by its underlying components. This is the only time we’re aware of in which companies slashed distributions even while operating performance was fine, as shown by the growing EBITDA on the slide below.
    EBITDA vs Leverage
    But if you’ve invested for the income and it’s cut, you’re let down and no mitigating circumstances will compensate. It’s why MLPs have shrunk to well under half the midstream energy infrastructure sector, with conventional corporations (“c-corps”) now dominant.
    Investors in MLP funds or MLP-only portfolios can select from a couple of big MLPs and many very small ones while overlooking six of the ten biggest pipeline companies, since they’re corporations. AMLP, with its 100% MLP construction and disastrous tax structure, would never be created in today’s form. It is a slowly shrinking legacy to the past (see MLP Funds Made for Uncle Sam).
  • Election year concerns. A Warren victory is perceived as the most negative, due to her proposed ban on fracking. If applied to federal lands this would have some very modest impact on production. Most drilling takes place on private lands and is regulated by the states. An outright ban on fracking would require an act of Congress which, barring a complete Democrat sweep to include control of the senate, we believe is highly unlikely.
  • Tax loss selling. This seems to happen every year, but energy’s chronic underperformance has created opportunities for investors to pair gains elsewhere with losses in this sector.
  • Climate Change. It’s hard to assess the impact of investors who might otherwise invest in energy declining to do so, either for ESG reasons or because they fear public policy will impose harsh limits on use of fossil fuels. ESG funds are notable investors in some of the biggest pipeline corporations but not in MLPs because governance (the “G” in ESG) provides weaker investor protections. Tallgrass recently demonstrated this (see Blackstone and Tallgrass Further Discredit the MLP Model). The result has been that the MLP-dominated Alerian MLP index has increasingly lagged our own American Energy Independence Index, which is 80% corporations.

Our best bet is that tax loss selling will soon abate, and continuing evidence of capital discipline will draw generalist investors to invest. There’s certainly plenty of interest from other buyers (see Private Equity Sees Value in Unloved Pipelines). But the history of distribution cuts, some poor capital allocation decisions and episodes of investor abuse because of weak MLP governance have depressed sentiment for some time.

For many years November was the best time to buy, with the predominantly retail investor base making the January effect more pronounced than in the broader equity market. The effect has become more muted as companies have switched from MLP to corporation, but still remains a factor (see Give Your Loved One an MLP This Holiday Season) 

We are invested in KMI and TGE

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Important Disclosures

The information provided is for informational purposes only and investors should determine for themselves whether a particular service, security or product is suitable for their investment needs. The information contained herein is not complete, may not be current, is subject to change, and is subject to, and qualified in its entirety by, the more complete disclosures, risk factors and other terms that are contained in the disclosure, prospectus, and offering. Certain information herein has been obtained from third party sources and, although believed to be reliable, has not been independently verified and its accuracy or completeness cannot be guaranteed. No representation is made with respect to the accuracy,  completeness or timeliness of this information. Nothing provided on this site constitutes tax advice. Individuals should seek the advice of their own tax advisor for specific information regarding tax consequences of investments.  Investments in securities entail risk and are not suitable for all investors. This site is not a recommendation nor an offer to sell (or solicitation of an offer to buy) securities in the United States or in any other jurisdiction.

References to indexes and benchmarks are hypothetical illustrations of aggregate returns and do not reflect the performance of any actual investment. Investors cannot invest in an index and do not reflect the deduction of the advisor’s fees or other trading expenses. There can be no assurance that current investments will be profitable. Actual realized returns will depend on, among other factors, the value of assets and market conditions at the time of disposition, any related transaction costs, and the timing of the purchase. Indexes and benchmarks may not directly correlate or only partially relate to portfolios managed by SL Advisors as they have different underlying investments and may use different strategies or have different objectives than portfolios managed by SL Advisors (e.g. The Alerian index is a group MLP securities in the oil and gas industries. Portfolios may not include the same investments that are included in the Alerian Index. The S & P Index does not directly relate to investment strategies managed by SL Advisers.)

This site may contain forward-looking statements relating to the objectives, opportunities, and the future performance of the U.S. market generally. Forward-looking statements may be identified by the use of such words as; “believe,” “expect,” “anticipate,” “should,” “planned,” “estimated,” “potential” and other similar terms. Examples of forward-looking statements include, but are not limited to, estimates with respect to financial condition, results of operations, and success or lack of success of any particular investment strategy. All are subject to various factors, including, but not limited to general and local economic conditions, changing levels of competition within certain industries and markets, changes in interest rates, changes in legislation or regulation, and other economic, competitive, governmental, regulatory and technological factors affecting a portfolio’s operations that could cause actual results to differ materially from projected results. Such statements are forward-looking in nature and involves a number of known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors, and accordingly, actual results may differ materially from those reflected or contemplated in such forward-looking statements. Prospective investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on any forward-looking statements or examples. None of SL Advisors LLC or any of its affiliates or principals nor any other individual or entity assumes any obligation to update any forward-looking statements as a result of new information, subsequent events or any other circumstances. All statements made herein speak only as of the date that they were made. r

Certain hyperlinks or referenced websites on the Site, if any, are for your convenience and forward you to third parties’ websites, which generally are recognized by their top level domain name. Any descriptions of, references to, or links to other products, publications or services does not constitute an endorsement, authorization, sponsorship by or affiliation with SL Advisors LLC with respect to any linked site or its sponsor, unless expressly stated by SL Advisors LLC. Any such information, products or sites have not necessarily been reviewed by SL Advisors LLC and are provided or maintained by third parties over whom SL Advisors LLC exercise no control. SL Advisors LLC expressly disclaim any responsibility for the content, the accuracy of the information, and/or quality of products or services provided by or advertised on these third-party sites.

All investment strategies have the potential for profit or loss. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that any specific investment will be suitable or profitable for a client’s investment portfolio.

Past performance of the American Energy Independence Index is not indicative of future returns.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
5 replies
  1. Mike S
    Mike S says:

    Yes, these are some of the factors. I think there are others to highlight and discuss.

    1) increased worries about “stranded assets” or situations were the terms of contracts could be negatively revised. The extremely poor equity and bond price action of natural gas producers (CHK, SWN, RRC, EQT, AR and GPOR) during late summer and early fall has caused many to worry about the supposedly secure LT midstream contracts with these producers as counter-parties in certain geographies. Antero situation does not show in current cash flows or projections. Though AR is clearly in a position to change terms with AM as they are pressured by lower nat. gas prices and have started to adjust water needs leaving AM with writedowns. Chesapeake has ‘going concern’ issues and trades <$1.
    2) OXY inability to find a buyer for WES, likely due to continued regulatory pressures in state of Colorado also negatively impacting DCP and may cause producers to reduce capes plans and associated future volumes in the state.
    3) Elliott campaign to apparently force Marathon to take actions to help MPC share price and burden or hurt MPLX. It is difficult to see the details of their proposals but it is clear that since they got involved again, MPC is up sharply and MPLX is down. As a thought exercise, they may be proposing for MPLX to borrow billions, buy a lot of assets in a drop down at a higher multiple final buy, spin MPLX off by distributing MPC owned units and then slashing MPLX distributions so as to service all the new debt.
    4) ET tone deaf actions to issue units and add debt to buy SemGroup after vehemently committing to improve leverage so as to be in a position to buy units and/or resume distribution increases. Also, continued issues with construction delays and maybe related government investigations in PA.
    5) And finally, many of these units are owned by institutions in levered closed end structures TYG, KYN, NTG et al that are apparently bumping up against upper levels of leverage limitations and may be selling into a weakened market given the other factors noted. Warburg Pincus dumping AM units in a secondary in past week is another example of large institutional selling.

  2. Elliot Miller
    Elliot Miller says:

    Here’s a reaction from this old, used-to-be-richer investor: there is no sector other than MLPs which provides so irrationally high, sustainable yields which are also largely tax deferred. When I was a child growing up in NYC, Mayor LaGuardia used to say that with “patience and fortitude luck will come your way”.Investing in MLPs today takes both patience and fortitude, but there is no other place to achieve such unreasonably high sustainable tax deferred yields..

  3. Pat
    Pat says:

    A few big boys I talk to are buying EMO, FEI and KYN CEFs at 24% discounts to NAV + the big yields. Also AMLP Jan 2021 calls. Also a major financial reporter I know covering the space is looking into these CEF discount anomalies and the sector in general. May result in nothing but that’s what I am hearing. Thanks for your great insights.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.