Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) – an island of stability for dividend investors
Master Limited Partnerships are limited by US Code to only apply to enterprises that engage in certain businesses, mostly pertaining to the use of natural resources, such as petroleum and natural gas extraction and transportation. They combine the tax advantages of a partnership and higher dividend yields with the day to day tradability of common stocks.
MLPs consist of a general partner who manages the operations and limited partners who own the rest of the units for the partnership. Unlike corporations MLPs are not subject to double taxation.
Their stocks are called units, while their dividends are called distributions. The units are very easy to buy and sell, as they trade just like any other stock on NYSE, Nasdaq and AMEX.
MLPs mail individualized K-1 tax forms to each unitholder in late February or early March of each year that specifies the tax treatment of the prior year's payouts. A portion of their payouts can be tax-deferred, and it is subtracted from ones cost basis. When you sell your units, some of the gain that comes from certain deductions such as depreciation expense will be taxed as ordinary income. Because of MLPs specific legal structure, investors should consult with their tax advisor before investing in them.
The majority of Master Limited Partnerships engage in the transportation and storage of natural resources such as refined petroleum products and natural gas.
Thus MLPs typically enjoy toll-road business models. Thus:
- They do not take title to the commodities transported
- Are mostly indifferent to fluctuations in commodity prices because they are paid to transport not produce commodities
- They do not have significant credit risk as commodity prices balloon.
- MLP’s receive a fixed fee for moving a product over a certain distance through their pipelines
Other qualities that enable these stable enterprises to keep increasing their dividends over time include:
-Long Useful Lives of their assets
-Fees are indexed to inflation, which provides an inflation hedge
-Most MLPs have a near monopoly in their area
-There is a high cost of entry and thus there is virtually no competition
There are different types risks to investing in MLPs as well, including Regulatory Risks, Interest Rate Risks and Liability Risks.
MLPs are subject to Regulatory Risks. Currently most partnerships enjoy a pass through taxation of their income to partners, which avoid double taxation of earnings. If the government were to change MLP business structure, unitholders will not be able to enjoy the high yields in the sector for long. In addition to that since the fees that MLP charge for transportation of oil and gas products through their pipelines are regulated by the governments, this could affect the revenue stream negatively.
MLPs also carry some interest rate risks. During increases in the interest rates by the FED in 1994, 1999 and 2004 the partnerships didn’t produce decent returns to shareholders. Because of the ability to grow their cash flow base, MLPs could relatively outperform in a rising interest rate environment.
Liability risk -Unitholders typically have no liability, similar to a corporation's shareholders. Creditors however have the right to seek the return of distributions made to unitholders if the liability in question arose before the distribution was paid. This liability stays attached to the unitholder even after he or she sells the units.
The benchmark for Master Limited Partnerships, the Alerian MLP Index, has enjoyed above average annual total returns of 11.90% from 1995 to 2008. Part of the strong performance could be attributed to the above average distribution yields that most MLPs enjoy, coupled with strong growth in distributions. Master limited partnerships generate predictable and growing cash flows, which are somewhat immune to commodities price volatility and overall economic conditions. Despite the fact that the Alerian MLP Index lost 36.90% in 2008, the index is virtually unchanged so far in 2009.
The five MLPs with highest weights in the index include:
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (KMP) owns and operates natural gas, gasoline, and other petroleum product pipelines. Also operates coal and other dry-bulk materials terminals and provides CO2 for enhanced oil recovery projects. KMP has managed to increase annual distributions by 13.90% on average since 1993. The partnership’s units currently yield 9.10%. Check out my analysis of Kinder Morgan, which is one of my best high yield stocks to own in 2009.
Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) owns onshore and offshore natural gas, natural gas liquids, crude oil and petrochemical pipelines and associated facilities. EPD has managed to increase annual distributions by 9.60% on average since 1999. The partnership’s units currently yield 9.80%.
Plains All American Pipeline (PAA) owns crude oil and refined products pipelines and associated facilities, primarily in Texas, California, Oklahoma, Louisiana and the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Also involved in the marketing and storage of liquefied petroleum gas. PAA has managed to increase annual distributions by 7.40% on average since 1999. The partnership’s units currently yield 9.30%.
Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) owns natural gas pipelines and associated facilities. ETP also markets propane to retail customers in 40 states. ETP has managed to increase annual distributions by 13.50% on average since 1998. The partnership’s units currently yield 9.90%.
Oneok Partners (OKS) owns natural gas pipelines, processing plants and associated facilities, mostly in the Mid-Continent region. OKS has managed to increase annual distributions by 4.70% on average since 1994. The partnership’s units currently yield 10.20%.
As usual these MLPs are just a starting point for research and should not be taken as recommendations. Because of their unique structure, consult with a tax professional before investing in them.
Full Disclosure: Long KMR
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