In 2005, when I was providing seed capital to emerging hedge funds at JPMorgan, we met with Alerian’s founder Gabriel Hammond. “Gabe” knew a great deal about Master Limited Partnerships, and he was convinced that the sector needed an index in order to grow. He was right, and Alerian’s index became the most widely used benchmark for MLPs. We seeded Alerian Capital Management’s offshore hedge fund.

Back then, MLPs were synonymous with energy infrastructure. To invest in one was to invest in the other. But as regular readers know, much has changed since then. MLPs are now a shrinking subset of energy infrastructure. The Shale Revolution created the need for growth capital to build new pipelines, because crude oil hadn’t previously been sourced in North Dakota, nor natural gas in Pennsylvania. The MLP’s promise to pay investors 90% of Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) came into conflict with their desire to invest in new projects. The older, wealthy Americans who owned MLPs were there for the regular income. Foregoing some of today’s distributions in exchange for the promise of higher future returns wasn’t appealing, and MLPs turned out to be a poor source of growth capital. MLPs began “simplifying”, in many cases becoming regular corporations where payout ratios are far less than 90% and investors are global. In short, the older, wealthy American turned out to be the wrong type of investor for midstream energy infrastructure’s response to the Shale Revolution. MLPs were no longer equivalent to energy infrastructure.

We’ve watched and participated in this evolution as investors. It’s an ongoing source of considerable frustration to many that the energy sector has performed so poorly when the fundamentals appear so promising. The price of oil peaked along with sentiment in 2014, since when the S&P Energy ETF (XLE) has dropped 18% while the broader S&P500 is up 52%. Volumes continue to grow, with crude oil, natural gas and its related liquids (such as ethane and propane) all reaching new records this year.

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