Pipelines Over Water At Sunset

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While its stock price performance would suggest otherwise, pipeline giant Kinder Morgan's (NYSE:KMI) underlying business has been performing admirably during the energy market downturn. That said, the market still has three main concerns: cash flow, credit, and capex. However, those concerns could fade away if the company shows a noticeable improvement in each metric when it reports second-quarter results on Wednesday after the market closes.

First, let's review

Despite the market's concerns, Kinder Morgan's earnings continue to be relatively stable. Last quarter, for example, distributable cash flow was nearly flat year over year, at $1.23 billion versus $1.24 billion in the first quarter of 2015. The slight decline was due to problems in its carbon dioxide and terminals segments, which were impacted by oil prices and coal industry bankruptcies, respectively. Otherwise, the company's segments delivered solid growth, driven by fee-based assets going into service:

Kmi

Note: In millions of dollars. Data source: Kinder Morgan.

1. Is its distributable cash flow outlook improving?

Initially, Kinder Morgan expected it would be able to generate $4.7 billion in distributable cash flow this year. However, last quarter, it warned that this number was projected to be 3% below budget because of weak oil and gas prices. That said, oil and gas are now well above the company's budget of $38 per barrel and $2.50 per MMBtu, respectively, which has the potential to fuel more cash into the company's coffers. Given this rebound, investors should look to see if the company is growing more optimistic about its cash flow hitting, or even exceeding, its budget.

2. Are there any other deals in the pipeline to improve its credit?

The turmoil in the energy market last year fueled concern about Kinder Morgan's hefty debt load. In particular, the market did not like the fact that the company's debt-to-EBITDA ratio ballooned toward 5.9 times at the end of last year, which was well above its 5.5 times target. That rising leverage forced the company to take action, which included slashing its dividend, cutting capex, and, more recently, shedding pipelines. The biggest step to correct the problem came as a result of its recently announced transaction with Southern Company (NYSE:SO), which brought in $1.47 billion in cash in exchange for a 50% stake in a key natural gas pipeline. Thanks to the Southern Company deal, Kinder Morgan now expects this key leverage ratio to be 5.3 times by the end of the year.

The company would like that number to drop below 5.0 times before it starts distributing more cash to investors through either share buybacks or an increased dividend. That desire suggests it needs to complete additional transactions, with the company making it clear that it would like to find joint venture partners to fund projects that are in development, such as its recent deal with a private equity fund. Because this is such a priority, investors should keep an eye out to see if it has additional deals in the pipeline.

3. Were there any changes to the capex plan?

Aside from trimming its pipeline portfolio, Kinder Morgan pulled the plug on two pipeline projects that had poor returns. As a result, the company's project backlog dropped from $18.2 billion at the end of last year to $14.1 billion as of the end of last quarter. Meanwhile, its 2016 capex budget has fallen from $4.2 billion to $2.9 billion.

Ideally, this number should continue to head lower so that the company can easily fund it using internally generated cash flow with plenty of cash left over for dividends and debt reduction.

Investor takeaway

Kinder Morgan's second-quarter report should unveil a lot of valuable information for the market to digest. However, the most important numbers to watch right now are the three Cs. As long as those numbers keep going in the right direction, long-term investors should have no reason to worry.

Matt DiLallo owns shares of Kinder Morgan and has the following options: short January 2018 $30 puts on Kinder Morgan and long January 2018 $30 calls on Kinder Morgan. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Kinder Morgan. The Motley Fool recommends Southern Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.