Energy master limited partnerships (MLPs) have had a bad 12 months.
That fact was emphasized last Friday when one of the largest MLPs, Linn Energy (LINE), finally eliminated its dividend. Linn Energy’s stock price has fallen nearly 90% in the last year, which is especially disquieting because LINE was famous for using sophisticated derivatives to hedge the selling price of its output.
Yet, in spite of the past year’s carnage, one corner of the energy MLP space has had a pretty good year: refinery MLPs. While U.S. oil producers are laying off staff, scaling down exploration, and cutting back expensive productions such as fracking and deep-sea drilling, refineries are running at full capacity.
Indeed, oil refineries actually benefit from lower crude prices because such prices encourage consumption.
Take the F-150, which is a major money spinner for Ford (F) and is far more than just a work truck. The F-150 has been selling twice as fast as other full-sized pickups recently, and part of the reason is that it has risen through the social scale. Ford now produces models that retail for around $60,000. These sell heavily to both “blue-collar entrepreneurs” and office types seeking the cachet from a “cowboy Cadillac.”
Risky, But Worth the Reward?
Now, there are relatively few refinery MLPs, in part because the MLP tax structure requires companies to pass dividends through to shareholders to receive the tax benefits. This works best for assets such as pipelines, which can benefit from a “tolling” contract that provides roughly the same cash flow each quarter and allows the MLP to pay a steady dividend.
Unfortunately for refining companies, no simple hedge exists for the spread between crude and refined prices, let alone for the operating efficiency variances that depend on capacity utilization. Hence, refinery earnings fluctuate greatly from quarter to quarter, which normally leads to highly variable dividends.
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Thus, investing in refineries can be risky, especially over a very long period such as retirement. Refineries have a finite life, require refurbishment, and deliver a fluctuating cash flow. Still, their yields can be truly attractive – and they become even more so when oil prices are low. Given that, here are three refinery MLPs that appear to have some upside for investors:
- Northern Tier Energy (NTI) will give you a truly spectacular current yield of 17.2%, based on the last four quarters of dividends, though the payout isn’t quite covered by earnings over that period. Still, NTI earned $1.39 and paid a $1.19 dividend in the second quarter 2015, which is satisfactory. NTI went public only in 2012, and quarterly dividends since then have fluctuated from $0.31 to $1.48 – the classic profile of a refinery MLP.
- CVR Refining (CVRR) is a large refiner in Coffeyville, Kansas, whose shares currently yield 15.4%, based on the last four quarters’ worth of dividends. Like NTI, CVRR’s dividend fluctuates a lot. Since it went public in early 2013, the dividend has varied between $0.30 and $1.58. CVRR had not been earning enough to cover dividends, but it just reported that, in the second quarter, it earned $1.54 per share, ample to cover a dividend of $0.98, which will go ex-dividend on August 6.
- Finally, Alon USA Partners (ALDW), which owns a 73,000 barrel per day capacity refiner in Big Spring, Texas, has paid dividends totaling $2.84 over the last four quarters, only a little more than its $2.61 of earnings. That gives it a yield of 12.6%. It recently announced second-quarter earnings, and the company beat on both earnings per share and revenue. Net income was $0.95 per share compared to a distribution of $1.04 per share.