It's not exactly an easy decision to buy an oil and gas producer right now considering the price of oil, but it may be even more challenging to invest in an oil producing master limited partnership when you consider the debt levels of these producers. Still, when companies like Linn Energy (NASDAQOTH:LINEQ) and BreitBurn Energy Partners (NASDAQOTH:BBEPQ) sport distribution yields of 10.8% and 15.8%, respectively, it's going to make you turn your head enough to cross your mind.
We asked two of our energy analysts which of these two high-yielding energy stocks would be their first purchase today. Here's what they had to say.
Tyler Crowe: I'll admit that, at first glance, the better-than-15% yield for Breitburn looks much more tempting than only getting a more-than-10% yield on Linn, and the debt obligations for Linn look a little more insurmountable than its upstream counterpart. But there are two reasons why I'm willing to side with Linn over Breitburn: it's derivative profile, and the creativity of Linn's management to weather the storm.
Today's oil market looks quite rough. Even as rig counts and overall drilling activity slows in the U.S., production declines have not kept pace, and overflowing storage terminals suggest that the downturn in prices might take a little while to correct itself. Luckily for Linn, it built a pretty substantial commodity derivative profile to hedge against any major declines in oil and gas prices, and has a pretty balanced portfolio between oil and natural gas.
While it would be ideal if all of its production was hedged for the next year or two, having this much of its production selling at a higher fixed price is enough to prevent investors from jumping off a cliff. The real reason to get excited, though, is Linn's long-term plans to develop its assets through some new, creative agreements.
Its recent $500 million DrillCo agreement with Blackstone Group's (NYSE:BX) GSO Capital Partners will give GSO a fixed rate of return on some of Linn's properties in exchange for fronting the money to develop the property itself. These sorts of creative deals that management is pursuing will help it manage through the bad times as it significantly lowers its operational risks. It will also help maintain an adequate distribution coverage, which is exactly what you would want in a high-yielding investment.
Matt DiLallo: Let me start by saying I still like Linn Energy a lot. I bought my first helping of Linn's units not that long after it went public almost a decade ago, and have no plans to sell any of the units I've accumulated over the years. That being said, there are three things that BreitBurn Energy Partners has over Linn at the moment that, in my opinion, make it a better buy in the near term.
1) Better coverage ratio: Both Linn and BreitBurn dramatically cut their capex and distribution for 2015. However, BreitBurn's guidance for its distribution coverage ratio is 1.35 times, while Linn's is just 1.18 times at the midpoint of its guidance. By having such a robust coverage ratio, BreitBurn expects to generate $80 million in excess cash flow, while Linn is guiding to be roughly cash flow neutral in 2015. While both are moving targets due to commodity prices and service costs, BreitBurn's distribution is on a bit stronger foundation than Linn's.
2) Upside to oil prices: BreitBurn produces a lot more oil than Linn does, as oil is 56% of BreitBurn's production, while 58% of Linn's production is natural gas, and just 28% is oil. While BreitBurn's oil-weighted business really weighed on its units when the price of oil plunged, that weight will be lifted should oil prices rally in the future.
3) Relief rally when it bolsters its balance sheet: The last reason why BreitBurn looks to be a better buy now is because its units are being weighed down by the company's debt concerns. The company doesn't have much room on its credit facility, and there are worries that the facility's borrowing capacity could be reduced below the company's current borrowing rate when it's redetermined in April. However, the company is looking at both the public and private markets to raise capital, and once it's able to relieve this pressure by bolstering its balance sheet, it could lead to a relief rally as investors' fears abate.
Add it up, and I see a bit more upside in the near term at BreitBurn if things get better quickly. That said, longer term, my money is still on Linn.