Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs)

Investing can often seem complex due to the wide array of options available to investors. Among these options, Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) offer unique characteristics and potential benefits that make them an attractive investment vehicle, particularly for those seeking income. This comprehensive guide will explore the intricacies of MLPs, explaining what they are, how they work, their benefits and risks, and strategies for investing in them.

What is a Master Limited Partnership (MLP)?

A Master Limited Partnership (MLP) is a publicly traded partnership that combines the tax benefits of a limited partnership with the liquidity of publicly traded securities. MLPs are primarily found in the energy sector, where they own and operate assets such as oil and gas pipelines, storage facilities, and processing plants. MLPs generate steady cash flows from these assets, which are then distributed to investors in the form of quarterly dividends.

How Do Master Limited Partnerships Work?

MLPs have distinct operational features that set them apart from other types of investments:

  1. Structure:
  • MLPs are structured as partnerships, meaning they have general partners (GPs) and limited partners (LPs). The general partner manages the day-to-day operations and typically holds a minority stake in the partnership, while the limited partners provide capital and receive distributions.
  1. Tax Benefits:
  • One of the main attractions of MLPs is their tax treatment. MLPs do not pay corporate income taxes at the federal level. Instead, the income, deductions, and credits flow through to the partners, who report their share on their tax returns. This pass-through structure avoids the double taxation seen in traditional corporations.
  1. Distributions:
  • MLPs are known for their high yield and regular cash distributions. These distributions are largely considered return of capital, which means they are not taxed as income but instead reduce the investor’s cost basis in the units. This can defer taxes until the units are sold.
  1. Publicly Traded:
  • MLP units are traded on major stock exchanges, providing liquidity and the ability to buy and sell units easily. This feature makes MLPs accessible to a wide range of investors.
  1. Focus on Energy Sector:
  • While MLPs can operate in various sectors, the majority are involved in the energy sector, particularly in midstream activities such as transportation, storage, and processing of oil and natural gas.

Types of Master Limited Partnerships

MLPs can be categorized based on their operational focus within the energy sector:

  1. Midstream MLPs:
  • Midstream MLPs are the most common type and are involved in the transportation, storage, and processing of oil, natural gas, and refined products. Examples include Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) and Magellan Midstream Partners (MMP).
  1. Upstream MLPs:
  • Upstream MLPs are involved in the exploration and production of oil and natural gas. These MLPs are less common and tend to be more volatile due to their exposure to commodity prices.
  1. Downstream MLPs:
  • Downstream MLPs are involved in the refining, marketing, and distribution of oil and gas products. They also include MLPs focused on petrochemicals and other refined products.
  1. Mineral and Royalty MLPs:
  • These MLPs own mineral rights and receive royalty payments from companies that extract oil and gas from their properties.
  1. Diversified MLPs:
  • Diversified MLPs operate across multiple segments of the energy value chain, providing a broader range of services and potentially more stable cash flows.

Detailed Look at MLP Operations

Understanding the detailed operations of MLPs provides insight into how they function and the potential risks and rewards involved.

Structure and Management

MLPs are composed of a general partner (GP) and limited partners (LPs). The GP is responsible for the management and operations of the MLP and typically holds a 2% interest. The GP may also receive incentive distribution rights (IDRs), which entitle them to an increasing share of the cash distributions as certain thresholds are met. The LPs provide the bulk of the capital and receive the majority of the distributions.

Tax Treatment

One of the key advantages of MLPs is their tax-efficient structure. Since MLPs are not subject to corporate income tax, the income, deductions, and credits are passed through to the LPs, who report them on their individual tax returns. A significant portion of the distributions received by LPs is classified as a return of capital, which reduces the investor’s cost basis in the units and defers taxes until the units are sold.


MLPs are known for their high distributions, which are paid quarterly. These distributions are funded by the stable cash flows generated from the MLP’s operations. Because the assets owned by MLPs, such as pipelines and storage facilities, typically have long-term contracts, the cash flows are relatively predictable and steady.


MLPs often use leverage to finance their operations and growth projects. While leverage can enhance returns, it also increases the risk and volatility of the MLP. It’s important for investors to understand the MLP’s debt levels and how they are managed.

Benefits of Investing in Master Limited Partnerships

MLPs offer several advantages that make them an attractive option for income-focused investors:

  1. High Yield:
  • MLPs are known for their high yield, providing regular and substantial cash distributions to investors. This makes them particularly appealing for income-focused investors, such as retirees.
  1. Tax Advantages:
  • The tax-efficient structure of MLPs allows for the avoidance of corporate income tax and provides favorable tax treatment for distributions. A significant portion of the distributions is considered a return of capital, deferring taxes until the units are sold.
  1. Stable Cash Flows:
  • MLPs typically own and operate essential energy infrastructure with long-term contracts, providing stable and predictable cash flows. This stability is attractive to investors seeking reliable income.
  1. Liquidity:
  • MLP units are traded on major stock exchanges, offering liquidity and ease of buying and selling. This feature makes MLPs accessible to a broad range of investors.
  1. Inflation Hedge:
  • MLPs often have fee structures linked to inflation, allowing them to pass through inflation-related cost increases to their customers. This can provide a natural hedge against inflation for investors.

Risks Associated with Master Limited Partnerships

While MLPs offer several benefits, they also come with certain risks that investors should be aware of:

  1. Commodity Price Risk:
  • Although midstream MLPs are less exposed to commodity price fluctuations than upstream MLPs, they are not entirely immune. Significant changes in oil and gas prices can impact the volume of products transported and, consequently, the MLP’s revenue.
  1. Regulatory Risk:
  • MLPs operate in a heavily regulated industry. Changes in regulations, environmental policies, or tax laws can have significant impacts on their operations and profitability.
  1. Interest Rate Risk:
  • MLPs often use debt to finance their operations and growth. Rising interest rates can increase borrowing costs and reduce the MLP’s profitability and cash available for distributions.
  1. Leverage Risk:
  • The use of leverage amplifies both potential returns and risks. High debt levels can make MLPs more vulnerable to economic downturns and changes in the credit market.
  1. Distribution Sustainability:
  • While MLPs are known for their high distributions, there is no guarantee that these distributions will remain stable or grow. Economic conditions, operational issues, or changes in the industry can impact the MLP’s ability to maintain its distributions.

Strategies for Investing in Master Limited Partnerships

When considering investing in MLPs, it’s important to adopt strategies that align with your investment goals and risk tolerance.

Income Generation

MLPs are well-suited for income-focused investors due to their high yields and regular cash distributions. Investors can select MLPs with a history of stable and growing distributions to generate a steady cash flow.


Diversification is crucial when investing in MLPs to mitigate risks associated with individual companies and sectors. Investors can diversify across different types of MLPs, such as midstream, downstream, and diversified MLPs, as well as across different geographic regions.

Long-Term Investing

MLPs can be a valuable component of a long-term investment strategy due to their stable cash flows and potential for capital appreciation. By reinvesting distributions and holding MLP units over an extended period, investors can benefit from compounding returns.

Leave a Comment