ClearBridge Energy MLP Strategy Q2 2023 Portfolio Manager Commentary

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By Michael Clarfeld & Chris Eades

Midstream Set to Benefit from Oil Demand Growth

Market Overview and Outlook

Growing expectations of a Fed pivot and soft landing in 2023 remained the dominant theme in the second quarter, helping U.S. equities, as well as midstream energy stocks, continue to make healthy gains. The benchmark Alerian MLP Index rose 5.38% during the second quarter of 2023, making the strongest gains in June (+4.14%) as lower inflation data seemed to spell an imminent end to the Fed’s rate hike cycle and its pressure on economic activity.

Oil prices initially rose after OPEC+ announced surprise output cuts at the end of March, but retreated on global demand concerns as China’s post-COVID economic recovery has been slower than expected and a recession remained on the table in developed economies (namely Europe and the U.S.). WTI crude oil began the quarter at $74.37 and finished it at $70.64 per barrel.

Global economies continue to face multiple headwinds, led by a combination of stubbornly high (though recently moderating) inflation, elevated geopolitical uncertainty and lingering supply chain and policy impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., we have begun to see the dampening effects on the economy of tighter monetary conditions. During 2022, equity markets began pricing in a reasonable chance of recession, both in the U.S. and abroad. Thus far in 2023, global equity markets have recovered most of the losses incurred during 2022, and expectations are increasing that developed economies might avert a severe recession.

Crude oil prices fell from more than $120 per barrel in June 2022 to ~$70 per barrel to end June 2023. Recession fears left oil market traders fearful of global demand downdrafts for crude oil in 2023 much like those witnessed during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). A stronger U.S. dollar also drove downside in crude oil prices over the past twelve months. Large-scale releases of crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) further pressured oil prices. On the other hand, demand fear was partially offset by some optimism for a rebound in China demand with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. The surprise OPEC+ supply cut of 1.1 million barrels per day at the end of March also likely puts a floor on oil prices over the near term. With better visibility on global demand impacts from rising interest rates, oil prices could even increase over the next six to 12 months.

Looking forward, the trajectory of oil prices over the next year or so will likely be dictated by demand factors — not supply. Most oil economists forecast a roughly 2 million barrel per day increase in global oil demand to ~102 million barrels per day in 2023 and a further 1.0-1.5 million barrel per day increase in global demand in 2024. Essentially all of this oil demand growth is expected in developing nations, rather than OECD nations. We would argue that oil prices sitting at roughly $70 per barrel at the end of June discounted that oil demand growth will not approach levels expected by oil economists in 2023 and 2024. Said differently, oil traders seem to expect a material contraction in global oil demand growth rates compared to oil economists. A final twist to oil demand analysis remains the timing of the U.S. refilling its vastly depleted SPR. After depleting the SPR by roughly 275 million barrels (or ~45%) over the past 18 months, the U.S. government announced in June initial plans to begin refilling the SPR beginning in September. Thus, what has been a meaningful source of supply in the crude oil markets over the past 18 months will become a source of demand looking forward.

If global oil demand growth does approach roughly 2 million barrels per day in 2023 and another 1.0-1.5 million barrels per day in 2024, we see upside in oil prices over the balance of 2023 and into 2024. The supply side of the global oil market will meaningfully struggle to meet that kind of demand growth. We would also argue that the incremental barrel oil supply in such a scenario will almost have to be a barrel of U.S. oil — continuing to drive visibility in continued growth in U.S. oil production to the benefit of U.S. midstream companies.

Looking at natural gas, the short-term outlook is decidedly negative while the intermediate- to long-term outlook remains robust. An almost complete lack of typical weather this past winter left natural gas storage levels 32% higher at the end of March 2023 than a year before. Higher storage levels entering the spring and summer simply also equates to lower natural gas demand to refill storage levels. As a result, U.S. natural gas prices fell from above $5 per mmbtu at the end of March 2022 to $2 per mmbtu at the end of March 2023. In our view, pricing for U.S. natural gas will not meaningfully recover until the beginning of the 2023/2024 winter (with an effective reset on storage levels). With continued organic domestic demand growth and increasing demand for U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the international markets, the intermediate- to long-term outlook for U.S. natural gas prices and necessary production levels remains constructive for U.S. midstream companies.

Valuation for U.S. midstream companies remains well below the levels seen before the pandemic. Entering 2020, enterprise value to EBITDA (EV/EBITDA) multiples stood at roughly 10.5x. Despite the rebound the sector has experienced since the March 2020 lows, the sector today trades at 8.4x — despite what we view as a vastly better business model. Dividend/distribution coverage has moved from 1.1x to more than 2.0x. The sector has moved from being free cash flow negative to free cash flow positive (increasingly so in 2023) and balance sheet leverage (debt/EBITDA) has moved from more than 5.0x to below 3.5x. With no need for midstream companies to access capital markets for the foreseeable future, we increasingly expect excess cash flow (above and beyond capital spending and dividends/distributions) to be used for increasing share buybacks and further increasing dividends/distributions.

With improving financial metrics and continued low valuations, we still see solid upside potential for the U.S. midstream sector despite strong performance in 2022 and thus far in 2023.

Portfolio Highlights

The ClearBridge Energy MLP Strategy underperformed its Alerian MLP Index benchmark during the second quarter. In terms of absolute performance, all four subsectors in which the Strategy is invested made positive contributions, with the gathering/ processing and liquids transportation & storage subsectors contributing the most and the natural gas transportation & storage subsector the main laggard.

On a relative basis, the Strategy underperformed due primarily to sector allocation effects. In particular, an underweight to the liquids transportation & storage subsector detracted. Stock selection in the liquids transportation & storage and diversified energy infrastructure subsectors also weighed on relative results, while stock selection in the gathering/processing subsector proved beneficial.

In terms of individual holdings, Plains All American Pipeline LP (PAA), Magellan Midstream Partners LP (MMP), Williams Companies (WMB), Equitrans Midstream (ETRN) and Antero Midstream (AM) were the main contributors. The main individual detractors were Genesis Energy LP (GEL), ONEOK (OKE), Enbridge (ENB), Cheniere Energy Partners LP (CQP) and Kinder Morgan (KMI).

Michael Clarfeld, CFA, Managing Director, Portfolio Manager

Chris Eades, Managing Director, Portfolio Manager

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Copyright © 2023 ClearBridge Investments. All opinions and data included in this commentary are as of the publication date and are subject to change. The opinions and views expressed herein are of the author and may differ from other portfolio managers or the firm as a whole, and are not intended to be a forecast of future events, a guarantee of future results or investment advice. This information should not be used as the sole basis to make any investment decision. The statistics have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but the accuracy and completeness of this information cannot be guaranteed. Neither ClearBridge Investments, LLC nor its information providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information.

Performance source: Internal. Benchmark source: Alerian MLP Index. Neither ClearBridge Investments, LLC nor its information providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information.

Performance source: Internal. Benchmark source: Standard & Poor’s.

Original Post

Editor’s Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.

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