Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have been falling along with the rest of the Energy sector since oil began its plunge last Summer. Following its peak in August, the Alerian MLP Index is down 15.1%. So far it’s down 1.6% in January, typically a strong month as retail investors implement asset reallocations settled on over the Christmas holidays. However, there are some signs of stabilization as the Index was -8.9% for the month by January 13th so has rebounded since then.
We’re in earnings season, a time during which those firms with solid fundamentals and limited direct commodity price exposure can differentiate themselves by reporting their results and providing guidance. Kinder Morgan (NYSE:KMI), although no longer technically an MLP since their reorganization last year, still derives over half their cashflows from natural gas pipelines and is solidly in the midstream sector. During the conference call following their earnings they went through the coverage of their $2 distribution and although there are many moving parts the distribution coverage looks comfortable even with crude oil substantially lower (into the $20s per bbl) and natural gas down to $1 per MCF. Their direct exposure to crude oil and natural gas prices is limited. They reaffirmed 10% distribution growth through 2020. The stock yields 4.7% on its 2015 dividend.
KMI also made their first investment in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota by acquiring Hiland Partners LP, a privately owned MLP with pipeline assets in a still under-served area, from Continental CEO Harold Hamm. The $3 billion price tag will help fund Hamm’s expensive divorce.
KMI expects to invest an additional $800M in these new assets, expanding their capacity to transport crude oil from North Dakota. At a time when many are worrying about production cutbacks by U.S. shale producers this decision to make a new capital commitment highlights an interesting advantage pipelines retain over other form of crude oil transportation such as rail or truck. Only around half the 1.2 million bpd of output from North Dakota moves by pipeline, so increasing the Double H Pipeline (for example) from 80,000 bpd to 108,000 by next year will help. Pipelines operate at as little as 25% of the cost of rail and truck. While the latter two can offer greater flexibility, once a pipeline is in place its substantial cost advantage makes it a formidable competitor, and the long term commitments required of shippers provide far greater certainty about future cashflows. Some have suggested that E&P firms will press their MLP partners for price cuts on transportation, but they’re more likely to start by cutting use of more expensive rail and trucking assets. Pipelines are also far safer, with proportionately fewer injuries or spills.
The impact of production cutbacks is more likely to be felt by the higher cost transportation networks such as rail and truck. The area of the Bakken served by Hiland’s network has, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, an IRR of 10% even with oil as low as $38 bbl. It’s one of the more profitable areas, and likely to keep producing output at current price levels. The Hiland acquisition is expected to be accretive to KMI by 2017. The company isn’t immune to reassessing its backlog of projects though, and although the figure only fell slightly (from $17.9BN to $17.6BN), $785MM of planned capex was shelved, mostly in its CO2 division where they have more direct exposure to the price of oil. So there clearly are some reductions in planned investment because of the drop in oil. These figures offer a measure of their likely magnitude, at least for a bellwether midstream operator.
In other news, Markwest Energy (MWE) increased its dividend by 4.7% YOY. It currently yields 6.2% based on its expected 2015 distribution. MWE owns its General Partner too, so unlike many MLPs there is no drag on distributions to investors from Incentive Distribution Rights. Consequently, all the growth directly benefits MWE investors.