The 411 on MLP ETFs & ETNs

August 13th at 2:36pm by Tom Lydon

Looking at MLP fund investments, investors should also beware of costs. MLP mutual funds come with an average 1.44% annual expense while the average ETF has a 0.82% expense ratio. In comparison, traditional beta-index energy ETFs come with expense ratios as low as 0.14%. [An Equal-Weight ETF Approach to MLPs]

While the payouts look attractive, MLP yields are vulnerable to rising interest rates. Companies that fund operations with debt will take on higher costs as rising rates translate to higher borrowing costs.

MLPs also come with their own set of tax rules. MLPs are partnerships, which “pass-through” net income to their “limited partners,” or investors, so there isn’t a corporate-level tax. However, individual MLPs come with K-1 forms due to their tax-deferred status, inability to deduct current losses against other income, and can trigger taxable income even in a tax-free individual retirement account (IRA).

Investors, though, can use MLP funds to circumvent some of the tax headaches – MLP funds come with 1099 tax reporting instead of the K-1 reports and don’t generate taxable income in IRAs, but MLP ETFs and ETNs come with their own considerations.

Some MLP funds are structured as a C-corporation, which owe taxes on 35% on the holdings and are subtracted from the fund’s net asset value. Consequently, some argue that MLP ETF overall expense ratios are closer to 5%, which has led to underperformance compared to their benchmark. For instance, AMLP is about 6% below its benchmark so far this year.

Nevertheless, ETF providers argue that these ETFs provide investors with a diversified portfolio of MLPs for investors who wouldn’t be able to afford to spread out risk among a significant basket of MLP holdings.

Some non-C-corporation MLP ETF have reduced MLP holdings to under 25% to meet regulatory rules and hold other energy infrastructure stock  through subsidiaries. Some examples include the Global X MLP & Energy Infrastructure ETF (NYSEArca: MLPX) and actively managed First Trust North American Energy Infrastructure Fund (NYSEArca: EMLP). [Global X’s New MLP ETF Attempts to Avoid Tax Bite]

MLP ETNs, or unsecured debt instruments designed to replicate an MLP index, also come with 1099 forms, but the payouts are considered ordinary income, taxed at a 43.4% rate for top-bracket investors, plus state taxes. Additionally, as a debt instrument, the ETNs are subject to the credit worthiness of the underwriting bank. The JPMorgan Alerian MLP Index ETN (NYSEArca: AMJ) is the largest MLP-related ETN. [[A Closer Look at Master Limited Partnership ETFs and ETNs]]

For more information on master limited partnerships, visit our MLPs category.

Max Chen contributed to this article.

Full disclosure: Tom Lydon’s clients own AMLP.

The opinions and forecasts expressed herein are solely those of Tom Lydon, and may not actually come to pass. Information on this site should not be used or construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy, or a recommendation for any product.

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