A Buyer's Guide to Master Limited Partnerships: What to Look For Before Investing

Looking for a juicy dividend to pad your retirement income? Or perhaps you're someone who wants to build wealth the old-fashioned way, sitting on some dividend stocks for several years and letting reinvestment do the rest? Master limited partnerships, or MLPs, are a pretty compelling answer to both of those scenarios. The Alerian MLP Index, an aggregate of all MLPs, currently yields 5.57%, more than double the yield of the S&P 500. 

But here's the catch: MLPs aren't like regular stocks, and investors looking to add an MLP to their portfolio should evaluate these investments differently from how they would a traditional company. While there's no surefire way to determine the best MLP for you, there are some things you should look for when evaluating them that are unique to MLPs. Let's look at four critical questions you should ask when looking at an MLP, as well as what answer you should look for and how a few companies in the space are responding today.

1. How does it generate revenue?
Master limited partnerships can be involved in a multitude of businesses, but the one thing they all have in common is that they seek to develop assets and operations that will generate stable, predictable cash flows that can then be passed on to unitholders in the form of distributions. For an individual investor, it's critical to know how the MLP plans on maintaining these steady cash flows through its revenue stream. Here are a few examples of questions worth looking into when diving into the business of an MLP:

  • If the company is focused on oil and gas production, how much of its production is backed by a futures contract to lock in prices for the long term?
  • If it specializes in oil and gas gathering or transportation, is capacity in its pipelines secured by contracts?
  • Is the company more or less vulnerable to commodity price swings? 

This is extremely challenging for MLPs, because they try to shield themselves from boom-and-bust business cycles in an industry that constantly goes through booms and busts. A company that's able to generate revenue from its assets under long-term contracts that have fixed fees unrelated to the price of a commodity is going to be the most stable, and it will be easier for that company to plan new growth projects. 

2. How good is it at raising capital?
A Master limited partnership's appetite for capital is a lot like this.


Since they are set up as pass-through organizations in which individuals play taxes on distributions, many don't retain much -- if any -- excess cash to fund future growth. Instead, they do so with debt and equity issuances. With the need for so much capital, it's critical that an MLP can access that capital as cheaply as possible, and there are several components that go into how an MLP can do so. For example, how large are the distributions on newly minted units? What kind of credit rating does the MLP have, and what coupon rate does it have on its debt? There are a bunch of metrics you can look at when evaluating an MLP's ability to source capital, but the simplest way is to examine the weighted average cost of capital, or WACC.

The WACC takes into account the cost of raising new capital through either new debt or through new equity. Sometimes, calculating WACC on your own can get a little confusing because of things such as incentive distribution rights to general partners, preferred shares, and what not. Luckily, you can normally find an analyst group that has done the calculations already, if you do enough digging. Here is a list of WACCs for eight MLPs in the space, all of which were calculated by Bloomberg:

Company Weighted Average Cost of Capital
LINN Energy 5.8%
Boardwalk Pipeline Parnters 5.95%
Energy Transfer Partners 6.1%
Williams Partners 6.4%
Spectra Energy Partners 6.55%
Plains All American 6.98%
Magellan Midstream Partners 7.5%
Enterprise Products Partners 7.7%

In some cases, a higher cost of capital can also be an indication that shares in that MLP are performing very well and that the MLP may be funding some of its growth from excess cash left over after distributions to unitholders -- which brings us to our next question.

3. Is it over-promising with its distribution?
The appeal of owning an MLP is that we get those fat distribution payments, so we want to make sure that the distribution we're getting is on a solid foundation and not just a house of cards. Any company can pay out huge distributions, but the ability to sustain and grow that distribution over several years is more important. 

To best way to evaluate the staying power of a company's distribution is to look at its distribution coverage ratio. This metric is very simple to understand and calculate. It's the total amount of distributable cash flow a company brings in divided by how much it pays out in distributions to its unitholders. If you're lucky, a company will publish its distribution coverage ratio directly in its quarterly earnings release. If not, it will all at the very least publish its distributable cash generated and the total amount it distributed to shareholders on either a total or per-share basis.

There can be quite a bit of quarterly variance in distributions because of price swings in commodities or from large new projects that haven't come online yet, so from an individual investor's standpoint, it's better to look at distribution coverage on an annualized basis. Here is a basic guide of what various distribution coverages mean.

Distribution Coverage Ratio What Does It Mean?
Less than 0.5 Is this even a company anymore?
0.5-0.8 Calmly, slowly, walk toward the exit
0.8-0.99 This company had better have a really good explanation for why this happened
1.0 Breaking even -- this is where distributable cash is equal to money to shareholders
1.01-1.2 You'll won't wake up in a cold sweat worrying about your investment 
Greater than 1.2 Room for a distribution raise or to fund some of its growth internally -- MLPs with a distribution coverage ratio of greater than 1.2 will give you the warm fuzzies as an investor

If you're looking at a company with a low weighted average cost of capital but a high distribution coverage ratio, that means the company doesn't need to access the debt or equity market as frequently, and therefore the value of the equity in that company is higher. So don't write off a company with a high WACC without looking at distribution coverage as well. Here's the distribution coverage ratios for the companies I've mentioned:

Company Distribution Coverage Ratio
LINN Energy 1.13
Boardwalk Pipeline Parnters 5.0
Energy Transfer Partners 1.1
Williams Partners 0.87
Spectra Energy Partners 1.44
Plains All American 1.51
Magellan Midstream Partners 1.65
Enterprise Products Partners 1.49

Source: Company 10-Q filings and press releases

4. Am I getting a good deal on these shares?
Up until about now, everything here has related to the overall health of the company, but what about the stock itself? The really tricky part about master limited partnerships is that the most universal valuation metric that investors use to evaluate companies, the P/E ratio, is pretty much useless, because in this case we care more about cash generation than about earnings power. Instead of looking at price to earnings, we can use two other metrics instead: enterprise value-to-EBITDA, and price-to-distributable cash flow. EV-to-EBITDA is valuable because it evaluates how all the capital in the company can generate EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. According to Wells Fargo, the EV-to-EBITDA for the entire MLP sector is 15.7.

Price-to-distributable cash flow is basically how much you're willing to pay for a dollar's worth of distributions from that particular MLP. As you'd expect, companies that are in a better position to grow distributions for the long term will carry with them a higher valuation. Here's how all of the previously mentioned companies stack up based on these metrics.

Company Enterprise Value-to-EBITDA Price-to-Distributable Cash Flow (TTM)
LINN Energy 18.0 11.72
Boardwalk Pipeline Partners 12.5 8.83

Energy Transfer Partners

10.8 8.38
Williams Partners 16.6 11.30
Spectra Energy Partners 15.1 21.06
Plains All American 14.1 13.99
Magellan Midstream Partners 21.6 22.9
Enterprise Products Partners 17.6 17.87

Sources: S&P Capital IQ and company 10-Q and 10-k filings.

What a Fool believes
It may take some time digging into master limited partnerships to find the one right for your portfolio, but with distribution yields approaching 10% for some companies, it can be well worth the time. There are other things to consider when looking at MLPs, but answering these questions will help you get a much clearer picture of a partnership's current health, its future prospects, and its value as a stock. It may just help you get one step closer to finding that perfect income investment. 

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Read/Post Comments (12) | Recommend This Article (22)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 14, 2014, at 5:56 PM, ballengerm wrote:

    For those who like to prepare their own taxes, beware. I sold some MLP shares in 2013 (CQP) and it was a real pain to figure out the taxes on them. It took longer to figure out the MLP taxes than the rest of my tax work combined for that year. And this is with the premium or some such version of TurboTax. There are a lot of key numbers on the MLP that your broker is not required to report to you on a well-organized form like most investments. You will have to hunt through badly maintained websites run by your particular MLP to find everything. And the calculations are complicated once you do.

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2014, at 8:45 AM, arbtrdr wrote:

    The weighted cost of capital as given is meaningless because it gives a historical number but leaves out the duration. EPD has mst of its capital at 30+ years while others are selling 8-10 year paper. Which would you rather see if interest rates go higher.

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2014, at 8:50 AM, arbtrdr wrote:

    to the first poster - All versions of TTax figure MLP taxes exactly the same way. No difference. Sounds like you bought sometihng where you knew nothing. Almost every MLP uses taxpackagesupport and the information you need is on a K-1 and not a 1099B. Takes under 10 minutes per K-1 if you have a bit of an idea what you are doing. Too many buy MLPs without understanding they are partnerships. This poster obviously did not do any learning before buying.

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2014, at 9:40 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    One way to get into MLPs and not worry about tax preparation and K-1s is a EFT of MLPs such as $AMLP. Caveat: relatively high fees.

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2014, at 10:56 AM, ballengerm wrote:

    arbtrdr, yes, thank you for hitting the nail on the head of what I was trying to get at, albeit in a somewhat more aggressive than necessary manner. Learn about the tax implications of MLPs (which this article makes no mention of) before you buy. Also, I strongly suspect that "under 10 minutes per K-1" only applies to someone who fills out dozens of them per year, which is probably pretty rare on this community.

  • Report this Comment On August 15, 2014, at 11:35 PM, RxPro wrote:

    MLP distributions are non-qualifed, correct? The article mentions nothing of this point, which is basically the most important thing you need to know about MLPs.

    So if you have a personal investment account, avoid MLPs, if its in your IRA or 401k then go for it. Thats my view anyway.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 8:40 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    The distribution from the AMLP ETF is considered a "non-dividend" distribution.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 9:05 AM, texasflyfish wrote:

    Tyler may want to comment on this. MLPs should be held in a taxable investment account, not in an IRA.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 12:07 PM, docdocatl wrote:

    MLPs can take past April 15 to have their FINAL tax information available.

    So you are obliged to file extensions for your Federal and State tax returns.

    Also, if you have high gains from selling your MLPs, you may have to file state tax returns in every state where the MLP operates (runs pipelines, for example).

    Each state has a set no-tax earnings threshold: if your gains are above that figure, then you have to file a return--usually in multiple states.

    And if you pay an accountant to prepare your taxes, his/her fees begin mounting quickly, based on how the above scenarios apply to your MLPs.

    I had to file for an extension for 2013 because only one MLP generated final reporting data after

    June 30.

    I would have appreciated having the following information included in the article:

    1. The wealth transfer benefits of owning MLPs.

    2. Information on how the cost basis of an MLP is adjusted annually, in the period that the purchaser is alive and owns the MLP.

    3. What happens when the cost basis reaches zero?

    Then, what happens when one passes away owning MLPs:

    4. What cost basis is used to determine estate taxes?

    5. Is the cost basis adjusted when your MLPs pass to heirs or a Trust?

    If so, how is the new cost basis determined?

    6. What are the financial/tax implications of resetting the cost basis after one's death?

    MLPs are about a lot more than high yields, and one needs a lot more critical information for evaluating whether or not MLPs should be included in one's portfolio.

    Yet there is a dearth of information out there on the wealth transferring benefits of MLPs, and a really comprehensive article that includes this would be most welcomed by at least this Fool.


  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 9:05 PM, awallejr wrote:

    The main point about MLPs is the tax treatment. You basically get tax free yield to a certain point then capital gains treatment. Sell once your basis is set to zero, wait 31 days and buy back in.

  • Report this Comment On August 18, 2014, at 6:48 AM, TopAustrianFool wrote:

    " seek to develop assets and operations that will generate stable, predictable cash flows that can then be passed on to unitholders in the form of distributions."

    Really? How about citing the prospectus from which you lifted this... Who edited this?

  • Report this Comment On November 09, 2014, at 5:27 PM, baluscher wrote:

    The first poster actually makes a very valid point. One issue with MLPs is that if you close out your position, you have issues that are not apparent when you get your annual K-1. You have to deal with recapture of things like depreciation taken by the MLP which reduced the taxable portion of distributions in years prior to the sale. You can end up with a huge amount of income that is suddenly taxable as ordinary income in the year of sale. If you want more information on this, it has been a point of contention with people who have owned Kinder Morgan Partners (KMP) units -- Kinder Morgan Inc's (KMI) "merger" deal is a taxable sale of KMP units which will cause a lot of ordinary income to be lumped into a single tax year for people who have held for many years. Read this WSJ article for example:

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