Will MLP Distribution Cuts Pay Off?

It’s surprisingly difficult to find out what MLP distributions have been doing. Alerian claims that their index has been growing its payouts at a 6% average annual rate for 10 years, with growth continuing in 2016 (it’s not yet updated for 2017). However, their methodology is odd. They take the trailing growth rate of the current index constituents, which are regularly updated. This tends to bias the growth rate up, because they dump poor performers and add good ones. 

Because Alerian doesn’t publish the actual experience of its index investors, it’s necessary to look at how investment products tied to those indices have done. Not surprisingly, payouts have fallen. As the chart shows, for the JPMorgan MLP ETN (AMJ) and for the Alerian MLP Fund (AMLP), two of the largest vehicles in the sector, dividends are down approximately 30% from their highs in 2014-15. This is what MLP distributions have been actually doing – falling, not rising — in spite of what is sometimes implied. Perhaps coincidentally, the cut in payouts is similar to the drop in the sector (38%) from its August 2014 highs.

(Click on image to enlarge)

As we’ve written before, the Shale Revolution induced many MLP managers to pursue growth opportunities (see More on the Changing MLP Investor). The need for growth capital pressured financial models that historically distributed 90% of Distributable Cash Flow (DCF), when growth needs were minimal. Leverage rose, growth projects were favored over reliable payouts, and distributions were cut. Investors felt let down if not deceived.

Although the big picture is simple, at each company level there are more detailed reasons why growth plans that were not expected to threaten payouts nonetheless led to cuts. Plains All American (PAGP) saw its Supply and Logistics business drop from $900MM in EBITDA to less than $100MM over two years. Kinder Morgan (KMI) was hurt by the cyclicality of its Enhanced Oil Recovery business. But broadly speaking, the dividend cuts were a redirection of cashflows into new projects, rather than reflective of poor operating results.

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Disclosure: We are invested in KMI and PAGP

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