Ten days ago Enterprise Products (EPD) announced that they may in the future initiate a buyback of units, perhaps in 2019. Bigger news was the moderation in the growth rate of their distribution, so the buyback received less attention. But it highlights an interesting fact about MLPs, which is that they rarely do buybacks.
Part of the reason is taxes. Companies in the S&P 500 in aggregate return only 42% of their profits in the form of dividends. From a purely tax-efficiency standpoint they shouldn’t pay dividends at all – profits are subject to corporate tax and then the holder has to pay tax on the dividend income. The distortion caused by taxes means that corporations that pay dividends deprive investors of the benefit of deferring taxes, which they could do if companies fully relied on buybacks to return capital. In this way, investors could choose when to realize a portion of their investment and incur the corresponding tax liability. Don’t expect this to change anytime soon though.
By contrast, distributions paid to MLP investors don’t determine their taxes. Buy and hold MLP investors pay taxes on their proportionate share of the profits of the business, regardless of the distributions received. Because MLPs themselves aren’t taxed, there’s no double taxation of profits to owners. For years the market rewarded steadily rising dividend payments, and so MLPs paid out the substantial majority of their Distributable Cash Flow (approximately equivalent to Free Cash Flow less Maintenance Capex) and raised new equity when they needed capital. Since distributions paid to MLP investors aren’t tax-inefficient, there’s little need for MLPs to use buybacks to return extra cash to investors. Moreover, in the GP/MLP structure in which the GP operates like a hedge fund manager (see MLPs and Hedge Funds Are More Alike Than You Think), buybacks might lower the payments received from Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs), as IDRs are determined both by the level of dividend paid as well as the number of LP units outstanding. So MLPs don’t do buybacks – they generally pay out most of their cashflow and typically issue new equity for new projects.