From the October 2013 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

September 30, 2013

Pipe Down: How to Play the New Oil Boom Without All the Risk

One option: an ETN from Credit Suisse that has found traction among advisors

By now, most advisors are aware of the new U.S. oil and gas boom. As reported by John Sullivan (see “One of the Most Underreported Facts of 2012,” ThinkAdvisor.com, Feb. 4, 2013), “2012 saw the greatest increase in domestic crude production ever. Even better? 2013 is already on track to beat it.”

Perhaps best is that U.S. production of natural gas has shot up almost in lock-step with oil: According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, from Jan. 1, 2007, until the beginning of August, U.S. oil production has increased 40%, from 5 million barrels per day (bpd) to 7 million bpd, while natural gas production jumped 25%, from 2 million cubic feet per day (cfd) to 2.5 million cfd.

To put these increases into historical perspective, U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 at 9.6 million bpd, falling to the 2007 low. In contrast, natural gas production had stagnated at the 2 million cfd mark since 1980 until the current boom. On June 10, the EIA released a report showing that the recoverable oil and gas reserves in the United States—now at 58 billion barrels and 665 trillion cubic feet of gas—is up 35% since 2011.

In the past 10 years, oil companies have figured out how to drill wells that run horizontally rather than straight down through the rock formations under them. That means the producing portions of these wells can be miles long, compared with a few dozen feet in most traditional wells. It also means that hard-to-reach, oil-rich rock layers — particularly shale — are now readily accessible. Virtually the entire 35% increase in U.S. oil and gas reserves comes from shale drilling. I’ve read reports that U.S. shale oil reserves will eventually be found to be larger than those in the Middle East.

Having worked for an oil and gas drilling company many years ago (before I discovered it was a lot more fun to write about investing), I’ve been following the “shale drilling boom” with great interest for the past few years. Having also begun my journalistic career writing about the imploding oil and gas investment partnerships during the mid-1980s, I’m well aware of the pitfalls involved in trying to make money from passive oil and gas investments. So, I’ve been keeping an eye out for a way that advisors’ clients might make reasonable returns from the new boom, without taking the ridiculous risks that usually accompany non-insider investments in oil and gas exploration. I think I may recently have found it.

Before I get to that, I hope you’ll indulge me one more historical set up. About a decade after I left the oil business to become a financial journalist, I had the privilege of working with the legendary Peter Lynch (who managed the Fidelity Magellan Fund as it grew from $18 million to $14 billion and eventually retired as vice chairman of Fidelity Investments) on his column in Worth magazine. One of Lynch’s strategies that I’ve managed not to forget is to avoid investing in “booms” and instead invest in the suppliers of boom companies. One of his favorite examples was one of the only companies to profit from the California Gold Rush of 1849, the Levi Strauss Company, which supplied sturdy britches to the gold miners. Levi Strauss is, of course, still booming today—some 164 years later.

I was reminded of Lynch’s “rule” when I was recently introduced to MLPN, Credit Suisse’s exchange-traded note (ETN) based on the Cushing 30 MLP Index. It’s an investment vehicle that delivers the returns—and dividend distributions—of the 30 “mid-stream energy companies” that comprise the Cushing MLP Index. These companies, formed as publicly traded master limited partnerships, are all involved in the gathering, processing, transporting and storing of crude oil and natural gas; that is, they are mostly oil and gas pipeline companies. Pipelines typically lock in their profits with contracts and inflation clauses.

It’s important to note that we’re talking about an ETN here, not an ETF. An “exchange-traded note” is just that: It’s a note issued by a bank that promises to deliver the returns of an underlying asset or index. The bank doesn’t have to own those assets (although banking regulators typically require that they hedge their exposure in some way). They just have to deliver the promised value (return or loss) and any dividends to the ETN holder. Consequently, banks can create ETNs on virtually anything they think investors will buy—and they do, from platinum to grain to “India” to market volatility. And, of course, they charge investors a fee for the privilege: 85 bps in the case of MLPN.

Due to this structure, ETNs eliminate the ETF risk of actually tracking the underlying index: The bank simply has to pay based on the index performance. However, ETNs do come with risks of their own. Matthias Paul Kuhlmey is a managing director at HighTower Advisors in Chicago, who brings nearly 20 years of international banking experience to the firm, including working with ETNs. “There is a complexity to ETN risk that advisors need to understand,” he said. “Advisors should think of an ETF like stock and an ETN like a bond. While the issuer has to deliver the index return and there is typically no tracking error, the investor is accepting the credit risk of the issuing bank: Can they honor their obligation? If there is a downgrade to the issuer’s credit rating, that can affect the ETN price.”

That brings us to pricing risk. ETNs can trade above or below NAV, so investors who buy above NAV could end up selling for a loss. While some ETN issuers offer investors the safety of buying back their ETNs at NAV at the end of each trading day, not all issuers do. (For instance, the widely reported collapse of TVIX, an ETN based on market volatility also issued by Credit Suisse, saw a rapid run-up in market price followed by two consecutive days of 30% price drops in March 2012, resulting in substantial investor losses.)

However, there seems to be considerable upside potential to balance the risk of MLPN, as Brad Plumer spelled out on July 18 on WashingtonPost.com: “Companies have been producing so much oil and gas that it’s now putting a strain on America’s energy infrastructure. The National Petroleum Council estimates 30,000 miles of new long-distance natural gas pipelines will be needed to manage the new sources of supply.” Kyri Loupis, an MLP analyst at Goldman Sachs, recently added: “It is not unreasonable to expect about $250 billion of new spending over the next 20 years to support new oil and gas discoveries.”

According to Greg King, head of exchange-traded products at Credit Suisse, the ETN market in the United States has grown to about $21 billion, and independent RIAs are the biggest market segment, making up as much as half. One of them is Kent Insley, who is the principal responsible for manager selection and asset allocation at Tiedemann Wealth Management, a New York-based RIA with $4 billion in high-net-worth client AUM. Insley likes the energy exposure that MLPs provide, without the usual exploration risk levels, and uses MLPN to get it: “We don’t look at MLPs as part of the oil and gas exploration sector: They are the energy infrastructure, like a toll road. They pay a relatively safe distribution yield, which today is 6%, with a total return of around 9% gross for the group. We consider them a stock and bond hybrid, usually allocating between 3% and 7% to non-taxable portfolios. The tax reporting on MLPs can be a problem for non-taxable accounts.”

Nick Reilly is the portfolio manager and principal at Horan Capital Advisors in Cincinnati, which manages and advises nearly $1.1 billion in client assets. “The only ETN we use is MLPN,” he said. “We think the build-out in oil and gas pipelines in the next 10 years will be immense. We like the feature that Credit Suisse will buy back MLPN shares at NAV at the end of the trading day. We typically allocate up to 7.5% in MLPN, based on risk tolerance. A high percentage of our clients have MLPN. We own it to reduce equity exposure and seek better returns than fixed income.”

There are other ETNs that provide exposure to the growing oil and gas pipeline infrastructure, most notably the JP Morgan Alerian MLP Index ETN (AMJ). But it’s based on the Alerian MLP Index, which includes smaller companies and some drilling exploration companies as well, which of course increases the risk. The advisors I’ve talked to prefer Credit Suisse’s MLPN because it focuses solely on the beneficiaries of the oil and gas boom, not the boom itself. As far as I can tell, the only other way to get MLPN’s exposure would be to buy Carhartt Inc., which sells working man’s clothes to oil field workers.

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