As a result of complex capital structures’ long presence in the oil and gas industry, the value differential between senior and junior equity securities is a frequent topic of conversation among industry insiders. Deriving such a differential is often challenging, particularly because junior share classes are rarely traded in public markets. In cases of yield-oriented investment vehicles where relative subordination among senior and junior equity is tied to periodic distributions, the question of value differential is further complicated. There are numerous well-accepted models for valuing securities with subordination features in the event of the sale or liquidation of a business, but there are far fewer models for measuring the detriment of ongoing cash flow subordination for equity instruments. This issue is especially relevant in cases where owners and management teams are contemplating capital structure reorganizations. How can these parties determine how much value is received, transferred or exchanged with the introduction of cash flow subordination features?
In the context of the oil and gas industry, master limited partnerships (“MLPs”) with common and subordinated unit structures provide a convenient lens through which to analyze this topic. Accordingly, this article presents a model that quantifies the value differential between senior and junior equity securities, specifically in instances where relative seniority relates to recurring, periodic cash distributions.
The capitalization structure of an MLP and the resulting economics are unique as compared with other public entities, due largely to the fact that the key terms of security classes revolve around periodic cash flow distributions. Generally, an MLP is required to distribute all excess cash flow on a periodic basis, as governed by its partnership agreement (as opposed to any specific tax or other requirements), subject to management’s determination of appropriate cash reserves for items such as debt service and working capital requirements. Although MLPs also maintain specific tax objectives and advantages for investors, this article focuses primarily on the mechanics of how distributions are made to investors, without regard to specific tax issues.
For many MLPs, securities sold in public markets are senior in priority with respect to cash flow relative to securities retained by the pre-IPO owners of the company. Specifically, publicly traded partnership units are usually referred to as “common units,” and owners of the old equity retain “subordinated units,” with equity split roughly evenly between the two classes. In this context, common unitholders are entitled to minimum periodic distributions prior to the payment of distributions to subordinated unitholders. Accordingly, subordinated units are inherently subject to more risk relative to common units.
Under this structure, MLPs specify their intention to distribute a minimum level of periodic distributions, typically referred to as the minimum quarterly distribution (“MQD”). Key terms of a representative MLP capital structure are outlined below:
The nature of the payout structure results in asymmetrical payments to the common and subordinated units, depending on the level of available distributions. As Figure 1 illustrates, potential payouts are classified by three per-unit cash flow scenarios:
In light of the asymmetry of potential payments to these security classes, it is necessary to use derivative instrument pricing techniques that appropriately capture these relevant rights and preferences in the context of future cash flow relative to the MQD. Accordingly, it is helpful to implement a model that uses Monte Carlo simulation to generate a range of potential cash flow outcomes for a company. The outcomes then can be translated to a valuation of the subordinated units relative to the common units.
Monte Carlo simulation is a modeling technique in which an uncertain variable or variables (in this case, future levels of periodic cash flow) are identified and assigned an expected distribution of potential outcomes. The simulation randomly changes the uncertain variable or variables thousands of times, based on the specified distribution. The simulation produces a set of projected results (in this case, thousands of potential outcomes for future quarterly cash flow) that can be used to calculate the value allocated to the common versus subordinated units, according to the partnership agreement. Averaging the output from Monte Carlo simulation yields the expected value allocated to each unit class, which then can be discounted to a present value equivalent in order to derive an indication of value.
The first step in the valuation process is to develop a mathematical framework for simulating the uncertain variable — future periodic cash flow — which is assumed to follow a geometric Brownian motion (“GBM”) process. GBM is a continuous-time stochastic process used to model variability in future asset prices and is the most widely used model for such purposes. Specifically, a GBM, S(t), satisfies the stochastic differential equation, dS(t) = µS(t)dt + sS(t)dW(t), where W(t) is a Wiener process, and the expected return µ and volatility s are assumed to be constants.
In this case, the main inputs required for implementation of Monte Carlo simulation are as follows:
This section contains a case study illustration to determine the value of the subordinated units of a representative public MLP. The five steps of the analysis are as follows:
Based thereon, the required inputs and assumptions for this analysis are outlined below and in Figures 2 and 3:
Figure 4 shows the range of results for the subordinated units, assuming a publicly traded price of $20.00 for the common units in all cases and running 10,000 scenarios. As Figure 4 illustrates, the discount relative to the common units ranges from 20.0% to 36.0%:
Providing further sensitivity analysis, if the base case expected cash flows are decreased by approximately 10.0% (leading to aggregate projected coverage closer to 1.00x), the base case discount relative to the common units increases from 29.0% to 34.0%.
In analyzing financial instruments with structural cash flow subordination characteristics, it is often difficult to determine the value differential between senior and junior instruments. On the surface, there may seem to be little value differential if the subject company anticipates meeting required levels of MQD. Regardless of the level of coverage, however, risk that cash flow will not be sufficient to meet required MQD payments always exists. In the case that cash flow truly is not sufficient to meet these payments, the value of subordinated units can be penalized significantly. The flexible model presented herein for quantifying the detriment of owning subordinated units is sensitive to a handful of key inputs, all of which management teams should carefully consider in connection with capital structure reorganizations and transactions that involve equity instruments with similar features.
Also contributing to this article:
Ioannis Michopoulos, MFIN
Associate – Valuation Advisory