StoneMor Partners L.P. (STON), Terra Nitrogen Company, L.P. (TNH): A Quick Rundown of Master Limited Partnerships

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With the markets bouncing around all-time highs, many investors are now finding it hard to find stocks that offer a decent dividend yield.

Terra Nitrogen Company, L.P. (NYSE:TNH)Master Limited Partnerships, or MLPs, offer some of the best yields on the market. Some offer mid double-digit payouts, while the rest of the market offers an average yield of around 2%.

But how are MLP’s able to achieve these high payouts?

Well, it all comes down to the structure of the partnership. MLP’s are structured in a way that encourages them to return cash to shareholders.

Master Limited Partnerships are not normal companies

MLPs have two separate partners, the general partner and a limited partner. The general partner can be a person or entity responsible for the running of the partnership. The general partner is paid a management fee and an additional incentive for increasing the distribution to limited partners.

On the other hand, the limited partners provide the capital for the company (through the purchase of shares) and receive a distribution of the profits (the dividend). The general partner is geared towards the distribution of profit, and legally must pass along the vast majority of its earnings to partners.

Tax benefits

As MPL’s partners (shareholders) are effectively the owners of the partnership, the main body of the partnership avoids federal and state taxation on its profits. Instead, shareholders (partners) are taxed directly. This is unlike normal corporations, which have their profits taxed before dividend payments, then see their investors taxed on the dividends they receive. This lack of double-taxation really lends itself to the creation of an entity that generates a lot of cash and focuses on shareholder returns.

For example, StoneMor Partners L.P. (NYSE:STON), an owner and operator of cemeteries and funeral homes in the U.S., is able to return more of its income to unitholders than it would be able to if it were not structured as an MLP.

Indeed, during Q1 2013, the company’s GAAP operating profits fell by 74% to $1.4 million, compared to the prior-year period, while GAAP operating cash flow fell 16% to $6.9 million.

However, the company’s non-GAAP distributable income grew 28% to $16.9 million, of which the company returned 70% to shareholders or $12 million — almost double the GAAP operating cash flow that it would have been able to return to shareholders if it had been a normal company.

Are these payouts sustainable?

Yes and no. You see, since a MLP pays unitholders out of its free cash flow, dividends can be highly unstable from year to year. For example, Terra Nitrogen Company, L.P. (NYSE:TNH) distributions have been erratic for the past five years, as volatile natural gas prices have resulted in varying profits.

Year 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Distribution per unit $15 $9 $5 $14 $16

In addition, while Terra Nitrogen Company, L.P. (NYSE:TNH) is in-line to achieve record profits this year, CAPEX spending is going to consume a large amount of cash flow, and unit holders will receive less in dividends than if the partnership were structured as a normal company. In particular, as a normal company, Terra Nitrogen Company, L.P. (NYSE:TNH) would be able to use retained profits from previous years to fund CAPEX, while maintaining a consistent dividend.

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