Master limited partnerships are not like other stocks, and the metrics we use to compare an MLP to its peers differ from the metrics we use to compare regular companies. The P/E ratio is out. Instead, we emphasize MLP-specific metrics like enterprise value to EBITDA (EV/EBITDA), distribution coverage ratio, and today's focus: price to distributable cash flow (P/DCF).
How the metric works Price to distributable cash flow is the MLP metric that comes closest to the P/E ratio most investors know and love. Distributable cash flow per unit replaces earnings per unit in our relative valuations because MLPs pass through almost all of their cash to unitholders. Distribution growth drives unit prices, and it's really all anyone cares about. That's why analysts and management never discuss EPS with MLPs; it's all about distributable cash flow.
To calculate P/DCF you take the market cap of the MLP and divide it by a full year of distributable cash flow.
Let's use Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE:EPD) as our first example. We'll use distributable cash flow numbers from the four most recent quarters. The numbers shake out like this:
|Q2 2013||Q1 2013||Q4 2012||Q3 2012||Total|
Now we'll divide the partnership's market cap by $3.45 billion to derive our P/DCF multiple:
The whole point of this exercise is relative valuation, so let's see how Enterprise's multiple compares to some of its peers. The DCF numbers for Energy Transfer Partners LP (NYSE:ETP) and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP (NYSE:KMP) come from the same four quarters that we used for Enterprise.
|Energy Transfer Partners||$19.59||$1.89||10.37x|
|Kinder Morgan Energy Partners||$34.68||$2.01||17.25x|
Enterprise falls right in the middle here. Not surprisingly, given its distribution history, Energy Transfer Partners has the most room to run.
But what is the benchmark for this cash flow multiple anyway? Most investors have heard that a P/E ratio greater than 15 is high, and the further it floats above that magic number the more overvalued the stock is. According to Morgan Stanley, the historical average for MLPs is right around 13 times distributable cash flow, with a standard deviation of plus or minus two. For the past two years the average has been at or above 15 times DCF.
By that standard, Energy Transfer Partners is the only MLP here that is "cheap." While investors could probably stand to wait for a cheaper buy-in price for Enterprise and Kinder Morgan, neither is hideously inflated right now.
Bottom line Again, the P/DCF ratio is useful for relative valuations, but by no means would you want to base your entire investing thesis on this one metric alone. In that regard, it is exactly like the P/E ratio: a great place to start your search.
The article How to Value MLPs: Price to Distributable Cash Flow originally appeared on Fool.com and is written by Aimee Duffy.
Fool contributor Aimee Duffy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Enterprise Products Partners L.P.
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