Numerous academic studies have shown that corporate insiders tend to be far savvier investors in their company’s shares than the average investor. Of course, it’s obvious that executives should be in the best position to know how their firm will fare.
However, in the short term, insiders don’t always get it right. But their long-term record means that it’s worth monitoring their buying and selling activity.
And for investors in master limited partnerships (MLP), it’s especially timely to consider such patterns, given that MLPs barely finished 2012 in the black. At one point during November, MLPs dropped as much as 7 percent over about a week.
Although income investors depend on MLPs for their distributions, few were immune from the negative sentiment resulting from a decelerating global economy coupled with possible austerity measures. The space may have also suffered from tax-related selling, as investors booked gains in anticipation of higher taxes, as well as fear of a change to MLPs’ tax-advantaged status.
While MLPs could certainly take a hit from a global economic downturn, the twin worries about taxes were temporary headwinds. As such, one would hope to see the management teams of MLPs taking advantage of short-term selling to buy additional units while they’re beaten down.
In fact, there has been a decent spate of insider buying in the MLP space over the past six months. According to Bloomberg, the percentage of shares held by MLP insiders rose 4.5 percent over that period.
I then narrowed my search to just those MLPs that already have significant insider holdings. I like to see firms with high insider ownership because it suggests that management’s interest is aligned with shareholders. So presumably it’s even better to not only see high insider ownership, but also a meaningful jump in recent insider buying.
With these criteria in mind, there were two MLPs that stood out from their peers:
EV Energy Partners LP (NSDQ: EVEP) and Inergy LP (NYSE: NRGY).
EV Energy executives boosted their holdings in the MLP’s units by 37 percent over the past six months, bringing the total percentage of inside ownership to 11 percent of outstanding units. EV’s output skews toward natural gas, and because the price of that commodity cratered this year, the upstream MLP’s distribution grew just 0.5 percent year over year.
But its distributable cash flow climbed 15 percent in the third quarter from the year-ago period. Management attributed that performance to its $1.2 billion acquisition of oil- and gas-producing properties in the liquids-rich Barnett Shale in early 2012.
That acquisition further diversified its asset base, and perhaps the possibility of additional acquisitions along those lines drove insider buying. The MLP is a disciplined acquirer, and has financed 60 percent of its $1.9 billion in transactions with equity and free cash flow since its initial public offering in late 2006.
In December, management announced that it’s currently negotiating with potential buyers of its Utica Shale acreage.
The company does hedge its commodity exposure, and it already has hedges in place for 83 percent of its 2013 production. So executives probably aren’t betting on a near-term rise in natural gas prices, since the hedges mean the MLP would have limited exposure to such a move.
After enjoying staggering gains in 2009-11, EVEP fell 9.5 percent in 2012, and its units currently yield 5.1 percent.
Inergy LP’s executives were also extremely active buyers over the past six months, accumulating enough units to increase insider holdings by 20 percent. Total inside ownership now stands at just over 20 percent.
The major catalyst for Inergy is the fact that it divested its retail propane business in early August and is now a pure-play midstream MLP. Inergy sold its propane operations to Suburban Propane Partners (NYSE: SPH) in a $1.8 billion deal. The propane business had weighed heavily on results, as the recent unseasonably warm winters caused a sharp drop in demand.
That dismal performance forced two distribution cuts in 2012, with the most recent payout down almost 60 percent year over year.
The MLP now handles natural gas storage, natural gas liquids (NGL) supply logistics and transportation. Inergy is also the general partner (GP) for Inergy Midstream LP (NYSE: NRGM).
Inergy’s units fell almost 31 percent in 2011 and another 1 percent in 2012. Clearly, management must believe most of the damage has been done and the company’s shift toward midstream operations puts it firmly in turnaround mode. But the units currently yield 9.1 percent, a sure sign that investors are still waiting to see if management’s efforts prove successful.