Pipeline Earnings Offer Helpful Insights

Earnings season for pipeline companies is drawing to a close, with just a few more names left to report. Results have been mostly as expected with a couple of surprises. Targa Resources (TRGP) handily beat expectations for 4Q19 EBITDA at $465MM versus $362MM. CEO Joe Bob Perkins drew criticism last year for his flippant comment about “capital blessings” when responding to investor questions about growth capex. A charitable assessment of TRGP’s capital allocation would concede that they embrace investing for future cashflow more than most of their peers. However, it does look as if they’re in the middle of a big swing in Free Cash Flow (FCF) 2019-2021. Following earnings, TRGP jumped 7%.

Energy Transfer (ET) reported another strong quarter and guided long term growth capex down to $2.0-2.5BN. 2018 FCF was ($412MM), and this year it should come in above $2.5BN, illustrating the very positive FCF improvement across most of the industry as financing of growth projects recedes. ET was also ready for the predictable question on structure – a “c-corp option” was their response, presumably meaning they’ll create a 1099-issuing entity that holds ET units. This will broaden the investor base but leave whatever concerns investors have about governance unresolved – by offering investors a c-corp without traditional corporate governance, its price may shed some light on the valuation discount partnerships endure.

Williams Companies (WMB) reported in-line earnings, but the conference call offered some useful insights. Upstream companies (i.e. oil and gas producers) are the customers of midstream energy infrastructure, and E&P bankruptcies often cause concern that pipelines will be left stranded, running to wells that no longer produce. WMB CEO Alan Armstrong had this to say,

“After a very long time in this midstream business, I have seen and experienced many instance of producers’ stress and even bankruptcy, and it’s very clear to me that the most protected service by far is that a wellhead gathering. Wellhead gathering is absolutely essential to any reserves that are going to be produced. Gas could not get to market and cash flow cannot be realized, if wellhead gas gathering is not available.

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