Energy Transfer Partners Fairly Valued, But Distribution Worth A Look

| About: Energy Transfer (ETP)
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At Valuentum, we think a comprehensive analysis of a firm's discounted cash-flow valuation, relative valuation versus industry peers, as well as an assessment of technical and momentum indicators is the best way to identify the most attractive stocks at the best time to buy. This process culminates in what we call our Valuentum Buying Index (click here for an in-depth presentation about our methodology), which ranks stocks on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.

Essentially, we're looking for firms that overlap investment methodologies, thereby revealing the greatest interest by investors. If a company is undervalued both on a DCF and on a relative valuation basis and is showing improvement in technical and momentum indicators, it scores high on our scale.

Energy Transfer Partners (NYSE:ETP) posts a VBI score of 6 on our scale, reflecting our 'fairly valued' DCF assessment of the firm (we think the firm is fairly valued at $66), its neutral relative valuation versus peers, and very bullish technicals. We compare Energy Transfer Partners to peers Kinder Morgan Partners (NYSE:KMP), NuStar (NYSE:NS), and Spectra Energy (NYSE:SE). In the spirit of transparency, we show how the performance of our VBI has stacked up per underlying score:

Investment Considerations

Investment Highlights

• Energy Transfer Partners scores fairly well on our business quality matrix. The firm has put up solid economic returns for shareholders during the past few years with relatively low volatility in its operating results. Return on invested capital (excluding goodwill) has averaged 11.6% during the past three years.

• Energy Transfer Partners is one of the largest and most diversified investment-grade master limited partnerships. The company boasts an attractive natural gas, crude oil, NGL and refined products logistics platform.

• We're not too fond of Energy Transfer Partners' weak cash flow generation and high financial leverage. Although this combination does not guarantee financial problems down the road, it could potentially be a recipe for disaster during tough economic times. The MLP is dependent on future equity and debt issuance.

• A significant portion of the firm's operating income is derived from fee-based sources with long-term contracts from creditworthy customers. We like its tollroad-like business model.

• Energy Transfer Partners boasts a large annualized distribution yield. Since the second quarter of 2005, the company's annualized distribution has advanced from $1.85/unit to $3.62/unit.

Business Quality

Economic Profit Analysis

The best measure of a firm's ability to create value for shareholders is expressed by comparing its return on invested capital (ROIC) with its weighted average cost of capital (WACC). The gap or difference between ROIC and WACC is called the firm's economic profit spread. Energy Transfer Partners' 3-year historical return on invested capital (without goodwill) is 11.6%, which is above the estimate of its cost of capital of 10.3%. As such, we assign the firm a ValueCreation™ rating of GOOD. In the chart below, we show the probable path of ROIC in the years ahead based on the estimated volatility of key drivers behind the measure. The solid grey line reflects the most likely outcome, in our opinion, and represents the scenario that results in our fair value estimate.

Cash Flow Analysis

Firms that generate a free cash flow margin (free cash flow divided by total revenue) above 5% are usually considered cash cows. Energy Transfer Partners' free cash flow margin has averaged about -0.6% during the past 3 years. As such, we think the firm's cash flow generation is relatively WEAK. The free cash flow measure shown above is derived by taking cash flow from operations less capital expenditures and differs from enterprise free cash flow (FCFF), which we use in deriving our fair value estimate for the company. For more information on the differences between these two measures, please visit our website at At Energy Transfer Partners, cash flow from operations increased about 63% from levels registered two years ago, while capital expenditures expanded about 89% over the same time period.

Valuation Analysis

Our discounted cash flow model indicates that Energy Transfer Partners' shares are worth between $50.00 - $83.00 each. Why such a large margin? Click here. The margin of safety around our fair value estimate is driven by the firm's MEDIUM ValueRisk™ rating, which is derived from the historical volatility of key valuation drivers. The estimated fair value of $66 per share represents a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of about 20.5 times last year's earnings and an implied EV/EBITDA multiple of about 15.9 times last year's EBITDA. Our model reflects a compound annual revenue growth rate of 45.7% during the next five years, a pace that is higher than the firm's 3-year historical compound annual growth rate of -9.7%. Our model reflects a 5-year projected average operating margin of 5.4%, which is below Energy Transfer Partners' trailing 3-year average. Beyond year 5, we assume free cash flow will grow at an annual rate of 0.7% for the next 15 years and 3% in perpetuity. For Energy Transfer Partners, we use a 10.3% weighted average cost of capital to discount future free cash flows.

Margin of Safety Analysis

Our discounted cash flow process values each firm on the basis of the present value of all future free cash flows. Although we estimate the firm's fair value at about $66 per share, every company has a range of probable fair values that's created by the uncertainty of key valuation drivers (like future revenue or earnings, for example). After all, if the future was known with certainty, we wouldn't see much volatility in the markets as stocks would trade precisely at their known fair values. Our ValueRisk™ rating sets the margin of safety or the fair value range we assign to each stock. In the graph below, we show this probable range of fair values for Energy Transfer Partners. We think the firm is attractive below $50 per share (the green line), but quite expensive above $83 per share (the red line). The prices that fall along the yellow line, which includes our fair value estimate, represent a reasonable valuation for the firm, in our opinion.

Future Path of Fair Value

We estimate Energy Transfer Partners' fair value at this point in time to be about $66 per share. As time passes, however, companies generate cash flow and pay out cash to shareholders in the form of dividends. The chart below compares the firm's current share price with the path of Energy Transfer Partners' expected equity value per share over the next three years, assuming our long-term projections prove accurate. The range between the resulting downside fair value and upside fair value in Year 3 represents our best estimate of the value of the firm's shares three years hence. This range of potential outcomes is also subject to change over time, should our views on the firm's future cash flow potential change. The expected fair value of $74 per share in Year 3 represents our existing fair value per share of $66 increased at an annual rate of the firm's cost of equity less its dividend yield. The upside and downside ranges are derived in the same way, but from the upper and lower bounds of our fair value estimate range.

Pro Forma Financial Statements

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: ETP is included in the portfolio of our Dividend Growth Newsletter.