Why The Shale Revolution Hasn’t Yet Helped MLPs

MLP investors must wish they’d never heard of the Shale Revolution. The consequent growth in volumes of crude oil and natural gas seemed a fairly simple thesis for owners of volume-driven infrastructure assets. Increased demand for pipeline and storage capacity, for gathering and processing networks, ought to be good for the sector. But so far, a dramatically more productive domestic energy industry has driven MLP stock prices relentlessly lower. Moreover, the divergence between the energy sector and the broader averages is a common investor complaint– the truism that MLPs are a volume business and therefore rising volumes should be good isn’t reflected in recent returns.

Early last week the International Energy Agency (IEA) published World Energy Outlook 2017 which forecasts that the U.S. will become the world’s biggest Liquieied Natural Gas (LNG) exporter by the mid-2020s, and a net oil exporter by the end of that decade. Other long term forecasts, including those from the Energy Information Administration, Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs are broadly consistent with the IEA. MLPs slumped anyway, perhaps oblivious to the report or maybe because of it.

The Shale Revolution, the paradigm driving America to Energy Independence, has not done much for investors. It’s pressured cashflows and balance sheets of formerly stable businesses. Few management teams seem able to pass up growth opportunities, and the consequent redirection of Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) from distributions to growth projects has alienated those wealthy Americans who accepted K-1s in exchange for steady, growing, tax-deferred income. The evidence of this is most clearly seen in the defiantly high yields of some securities. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), with its 14% payout, reflects investor disbelief that payments will continue.

Since yield no longer convinces, consider Duke Energy Corp (DUK) which delivers electricity and natural gas to over 9 million customers across the southern and Midwest U.S. It operates a highly regulated, capital intensive business.  Kinder Morgan (KMI) transports, treats and stores natural gas (including now LNG), natural gas liquids and crude oil in a highly regulated, capital intensive business. Debt:Equity at DUK is 5.6X and KMI is 5.3X, so they’re similarly leveraged. But KMI’s multiple to its Distributable Cash Flow (DCF, or Free Cash Flow less growth capex) is 8.8X. The analogous cash flow multiple for DUK is 13.2X (Net Income plus D&A minus maintenance CapEx). DUK is 50% more expensive on a cash flow per share basis. Furthermore, the value of the land and easements acquired for pipelines appreciates over time whereas power plants eventually depreciate to zero. In this regard, DUK’s $7B/year (11% of it’s market cap) in growth CapEx becomes much more concerning.

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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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