4 Refining & Marketing MLP Stocks Still Showing Potential
The Zacks Oil and Gas - Refining & Marketing MLP industry continues to benefit from strength in fundamentals, strong margins and robust fuel demand. Operators like Targa Resources TRGP, Sunoco LP SUN, Calumet Specialty Products Partners CLMT and NGL Energy Partners LP NGL also possess attributes to combat the value destruction from inflation. Apart from the underlying rationale for owning midstream companies during periods of rising consumer prices, the defensive nature of the stocks and their fee-based business models bode well in an unpredictable market.
Master limited partnerships (or MLPs) differ from regular stocks since interests in them are referred to as units, and unitholders (not shareholders) are partners in the business. Importantly, these low-risk hybrid entities bring together the tax benefits of a limited partnership with the liquidity of publicly traded securities that earn a stable income. The assets owned by these partnerships are typically oil and natural gas pipelines and storage/infrastructure facilities. The Zacks Oil and Gas - Refining & Marketing MLP industry is a sub-sector of this business model. These firms operate refined products' terminals, storage facilities and transportation services. They are involved in selling refined petroleum products (including heating oil, gasoline, residual oil, jet fuel, etc.) and a plethora of non-energy materials (like asphalt, road salt, clay and gypsum).
4 Trends Defining the Oil and Gas - Refining & Marketing MLP Industry's Future
Sustainable Cash Flows: Considering the volatility in oil right now — especially the jitters associated with a looming economic slowdown (posing a risk to consumption) — a safer way of playing the sector would be to utilize MLPs, which offer considerable returns at a significantly lower risk. The assets that these partnerships own — oil and natural gas pipelines and storage facilities — typically bring in stable fee-based revenues under long-term contracts and have limited, if any, direct commodity-price exposure. Even within fee-based contracts, a significant portion is of a take-or-pay type, meaning that the MLPs get paid irrespective of the volume of commodities that get transported.
Strong Margins: The industry’s improved fundamentals in the form of constrained supply and robust demand have led to rising refining profitability for the players involved. With product inventories running low and no near-term solution to replenish them, margins (especially for diesel and jet fuel) have set all-time highs. While margins have moderated from those spectacular levels, they are still reasonably high. Overall, elevated consumption paired with considerably lower refining capacity in the OECD countries should provide a tailwind for refinery profits throughout the year. In particular, constrained Russian fuel exports in the wake of the Ukraine conflict have further tightened the refining fundamentals.
Offsetting Inflation Impact Through Distribution Growth: The major refining and marketing midstream players — being largely insulated to fluctuations in commodity prices — maintained their distribution levels through the crisis-stricken 2020. Now, with the energy space displaying secular demand growth, their relatively steady coverage should represent a more predictable midstream payout scenario in the near future. Adjusting costs with prevailing business activity, the partnerships have focused on free cash flow (post distribution payment) generation to lower debt and strengthen their financial position. The growing free cash flows could be used to boost investor returns through buybacks and distribution hikes. Finally, distribution growth can also help investors to offset some of the value destruction of the prevailing high inflationary environment.
Ongoing Supply-Chain Bottlenecks: Despite the relatively bullish energy landscape and improved demand environment, the industry has not been immune to supply-chain disruptions and cost inflation. Macro issues like higher transportation expenses, driver scarcity and labor shortages have limited MLPs’ (or the energy infrastructure providers, also called the midstream group) ability to ship packaged volumes to their customers. Most operators have also felt the impact of inflation, which is rolling through the cost structure. What’s worse is that these headwinds across the system and the subsequent hit to profitability (due to difficulty in passing through the increased costs to clients) are expected to continue in the near future.
Zacks Industry Rank Indicates Positive Outlook
The Zacks Oil and Gas – Refining & Marketing MLP is a 7-stock group within the broader Zacks Oil – Energy sector. The industry currently carries a Zacks Industry Rank #32, which places it in the top 13% of 250 Zacks industries.
The group’s Zacks Industry Rank, which is basically the average of the Zacks Rank of all the member stocks, indicates bright near-term prospects. Our research shows that the top 50% of the Zacks-ranked industries outperforms the bottom 50% by a factor of more than 2 to 1.
Considering the encouraging near-term prospects of the industry, we will present a few stocks that you may want to consider for your portfolio. But it’s worth taking a look at the industry’s shareholder returns and current valuation first.
Industry Outperforms S&P 500 But Lags Sector
The Zacks Oil and Gas – Refining & Marketing MLP industry has fared better than the Zacks S&P 500 composite over the past year but has underperformed the broader Zacks Oil – Energy sector over the same period.
The industry has gained 4.3% over this period compared with the broader sector’s increase of 13.7%. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 has lost 9.8%.
One-Year Price Performance
Industry's Current Valuation
Since midstream-focused oil and gas partnerships use fixed-rate debt for most of their borrowings, it makes sense to value them based on the EV/EBITDA (enterprise value/ earnings before interest tax depreciation and amortization) ratio. This is because the valuation metric takes into account not just equity but also the level of debt. For capital-intensive companies, EV/EBITDA is a better valuation metric because it is not influenced by changing capital structures and ignores the effect of non-cash expenses.
On the basis of the trailing 12-month enterprise value-to EBITDA (EV/EBITDA) ratio, the industry is currently trading at 9.02X, lower than the S&P 500’s 12.55X. It is, however, well above the sector’s trailing-12-month EV/EBITDA of 3.14X.
Over the past five years, the industry has traded as high as 17.13X, as low as 5.76X, with a median of 9.81X, as the chart below shows.
Trailing 12-Month Enterprise Value-to-EBITDA (EV/EBITDA) Ratio (Past Five Years)
4 Oil and Gas - Refining & Marketing MLP Stocks to Watch For
Sunoco LP: Sunoco participates in the transportation and supply phase of the U.S. petroleum market across a number of states. It also focuses on motor fuel distribution to convenience stores, independent dealers and commercial customers. SUN pays out 82.55 cents quarterly distribution ($3.302 per unit annually), which gives it a 7% yield at the current unit price.
The gasoline station and convenience store operator beat the Zacks Consensus Estimate for earnings twice in the trailing four quarters. The 2022 Zacks Consensus Estimate for SUN indicates 2.7% earnings per unit growth over the previous year. Valued at around $4.8 billion, the Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy) SUN has gained 8.8% in a year.
You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank stocks here.
Price and Consensus: SUN
NGL Energy Partners LP: It is an MLP that owns water disposal wells, the Grand Mesa oil pipeline, and a wholesale propane/butane business. NGL Energy Partners has done a fairly admirable job of reducing costs. Its cash outflows as capital expenditure continue to fall as it keeps spending levels in check. Apart from significant capital cuts, the partnership should realize sizeable savings from headcount reduction and automation.
The fiscal 2023 Zacks Consensus Estimate for NGL Energy Partners indicates 97.9% earnings per unit growth over fiscal 2022. The midstream operator, whose stock is down 29% in a year, carries a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy).
Price and Consensus: NGL
Calumet Specialty Products Partners, L.P.: This downstream operator focuses on specialty products (oil, waxes, white oils etc.) and solutions, in addition to renewable diesel (or refining). CLMT targets high-performance markets for lubricants and engineered fuels, which provide ample growth opportunities for the partnership.
The 2023 Zacks Consensus Estimate for Indianapolis, IN-based Calumet indicates 191.7% year-over-year earnings per share growth. The firm beat the Zacks Consensus Estimate for earnings twice in the trailing four quarters. Valued at around $1.4 billion, the Zacks Rank #3 (Hold) CLMT has gone up 19.9% in a year.
Price and Consensus: CLMT
Targa Resources: Targa Resources’ fractionation ownership position in Mont Belvieu is among the company’s best midstream assets. The facility has connectivity to supply, storage, terminalling infrastructure, as well as to end markets through petrochemical complexes and exports. The company also has state-of-the-art LPG export facilities on the Gulf Coast at its Galena Park Marine Terminal.
The 2023 Zacks Consensus Estimate for Houston, TX-based Targa Resources (which pays out 35 cents quarterly dividend), indicates 31.2% year-over-year earnings per share growth. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for revenues, meanwhile, suggests a 15.2% increase from the year-ago period. The #3 Ranked stock has gained 18% in a year.
Price and Consensus: TRGP
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