The energy sector is in turmoil given the seemingly endless drop in oil prices, but not every enterprise is in cut-and-run mode. Master Limited Partnership Sunoco Logistics Partners (NYSE: SXL) -- one of several MLPs under the umbrella of Energy Transfer Equity (NYSE: ETP) -- is apparently weathering the storm, as it just raised its shareholder distribution. The new payout amounts to just under $0.48 per unit, 5% higher than previous recent distributions.
The partnership is a habitual distribution raiser; in the press release heralding the latest increase, Sunoco Logistics Partners did not hesitate to mention that this was its 43rd increase in a row.
At the current unit price, the new distribution yields 8.6%, well above the current 2.3% average of stocks on the S&P 500 index (although it should be mentioned that it doesn't come close to Energy Transfer Partners' 14.6%).
Does it matter?
Sunoco Logistics Partners is likely feeling optimistic because it's still keeping its head above water, financially speaking. Yes, sales were down considerably (by a queasy 51% to $2.4 billion), and attributable net income sank by an even steeper 64% to $56 million, yet the partnership remained in the black.
Also, as any MLP investor could tell you, the metric that matters is distributable cash flow, the favored cash flow figure in the MLP space. And on that basis, Sunoco Logistics Partners did OK for the quarter, raising DCF by 8% on a year-over-year basis to $210 million. It was not the only member of its family to show an increase; Energy Transfer Equity managed a nearly 40% jump in the same quarter.
At the moment, Sunoco Logistics Partners has the cash to fund those ever-rising distributions; the partnership remains in the black thanks in no small part to its concentration on the transport segment (which makes it less dependent on the crude price). Its DCF coverage ratio -- DCF divided by total distributions -- was 1.2 for the first nine months of 2015, meaning it still has some cash left over for non-distribution purposes.
No enterprise involved in oil-related business is going to be unaffected by the price of crude if it stays low, or plunges even lower. So we probably can't count on Sunoco Logistics Partners -- or any entity in the Energy Transfer Equity family, for that matter -- to keep raising its distribution forever. Investors will certainly be happy to get the extra coins in their pocket with this payout, but they shouldn't expect that to continue forever.