The Uncertain Future Of MLP-Dedicated Funds

In recent weeks there’s been growing discussion about the future of MLPs (see Are MLPs Going Away?). Although the prospects for U.S. energy infrastructure are very good, the need for growth capital has exposed the limitations of the MLP investor base. Not everyone agrees. Stacey Morris of Alerian provided a thoughtful assessment (see Are MLPs Really Disappearing?), and concluded that MLPs would remain the dominant corporate form in the sector.

Two external factors weighing on sentiment have been tax reform and the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) ruling. Tax reform’s impact was modest; a lower corporate tax rate reduces the competitive advantage of an MLP over a corporation, but the tax rate on recapture of income previously deferred was improved. The FERC ruling is potentially a long run problem for some businesses.

Although MLPs don’t pay tax, they had included taxes paid by their equity investors in calculating costs for certain contracts. It’s an odd concept, to include as an expense a cost you don’t incur, and a successful court challenge by United Airlines led to the change. The subsequent FERC announcement briefly led to a 10% drop in MLP prices on March 15th, highlighting confusion as well as the shallow conviction of some holders. While initially limited to certain interstate natural gas pipelines, it will in time also apply to other liquids lines. It’s narrow in scope but still a mild negative for a few names. It’s likely that the same assets held by a corporation rather than an MLP wouldn’t be as affected, which will cause some firms to consider changing their form of ownership.

We’re long-time MLP investors. I seeded Alerian’s offshore MLP hedge fund in 2005 while at JPMorgan. Tax-deferred, stable, high yields uncorrelated with commodity prices attracted many. The re-emergence of the U.S. as a significant energy producer changed that. Before the Shale Revolution, we consumed roughly the same quantities of energy from the same parts of the country every year. The need for new infrastructure was limited. Consequently, MLPs could pay out 90% or more of their Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) to the older, wealthy, K-1 tolerant investors who were the main buyers.

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Disclosure: We are invested in ENB, EQGP, ETE, KMI, NSH, OKE, PAGP, SEMG, TEGP, TRGP, TRP and WMB.

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Sajid Arain 2 years ago Member's comment

$KMI is a corporation. They gave up being an MLP in 2014. because it was too expensive to raise capital.

Danny Straus 2 years ago Member's comment

$KMI is an MLP?

Simon Lack 2 years ago Author's comment

No, $KMI is a corporation. They gave up being an MLP in 2014 because it was too expensive to raise capital.