Editor’s note: This column is part of our Best Stocks for 2018 contest. Charles Sizemore’s pick for the contest is Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE:EPD).
I really hate admitting defeat, but it looks like I may have to throw in the towel on InvestorPlace’s Best Stocks for 2017 contest. With one month left to go in 2017, my pick — General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) — is up a respectable 27%.
Unfortunately, that’s only good enough to secure me a fifth-place ranking this year. Louis Navellier is running away with it with a 78% year-to-date return in Nvidia Corporation (NASDAQ:NVDA). But even if Nvidia stumbles over the next month and General Motors enjoys a nice rally, I’d still have to contend with formidable competition in Matt McCall’s Albemarle Corporation (NYSE:ALB), up 52% on the year, and Brett Owens’ CoreSite Realty (NYSE:COR), up 45%.
Well, you can’t win ‘em all.
At any rate, it’s time to start looking ahead to the new year. In 2017, the investment themes that worked were large-cap technology stocks and Bitcoin. But at this point, those trades are looking a bit crowded, so I wouldn’t bet on them lasting through 2018.
On top of that, the broader bull market is looking a little long in the tooth. The S&P 500 cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio, which takes a 10-year average of corporate profits as a way of smoothing out the effects of the economic cycle, recently hit 32, its highest levels since the late 1990’s internet bubble. Starting at these levels, we’re likely looking at flat or even negative stock returns over the next eight-10 years, at least if history is any guide.
I’m not quite ready to call a market top here, but I think it makes sense to be cautious at this stage of the bull and to focus on the few pockets of the market that are still cheap. As we saw during the 2000-2002 bear market, dividend-paying value stocks performed very well in the early stages, even while the broader market fell. 2000 and 2001 were fantastic years for value investors.
This brings me to my pick for InvestorPlace’s Best Stocks for 2018 contest, blue-chip master limited partnership (MLP) Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE:EPD).
Enterprise products is one of the world’s largest infrastructure companies, owning and operating tens of thousands of miles of crude oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) pipelines in North America, as well as storage and processing facilities. EPD has assets in every significant U.S. shale basin, and as of November 2017, the company had over $9 billion in growth projects under construction. Quite simply, Enterprise is an energy infrastructure powerhouse.
Lower energy prices have been a problem for the industry over the past several years, though EPD is mostly insulated, as the overwhelming majority of its revenues are fee based and tied to volume rather than price.
MLPs have come under fire of late due, in part, to perceived conflicts of interest. Due to incentive distribution rights (IDRs), company insiders (specifically the general partner) take a massive, disproportionate share of any distribution gains (MLP dividends are called “distributions”). This perversely incentivizes them to throw caution to the wind and boost the distribution as quickly as possible, even if that meant taking on excessive debt.
Well, while I share investor frustration with the sector in general, Enterprise Products is one of the good guys here. Years ago, before this issue was on the radar of most investors, EPD eliminating its IDRs and the risky incentives and predatory behavior that come with them. Furthermore, company insiders (mostly heirs of the founder) own nearly a third of the traded shares, meaning that their interests are aligned with ours.
Perhaps as a result, Enterprise has been far more judicious and conservative in its distribution policy, raising its payout by 5%-6% per year over the past three-, five-, and 10-year periods. Many of its peers opted to grow their distributions far more aggressive rate … and ended up getting burned as a result. As an example, rival Kinder Morgan Inc (NYSE:KMI) had to cut its dividend two years ago, and the company is still dealing with the reputational damage today.
EPD’s conservatism is exactly what I want to see in this market. This is a balanced management team that doesn’t drink its own Kool-Aid.
Now, I’m not promising Enterprise Products will deliver those kinds of returns in 2018. Enterprise Products is a far more conservative operator than Energy Transfer and won’t be starting the year with ETE’s rock-bottom, blood-in-the-streets pricing. Even so, Enterprise Products is still plenty cheap, and I expect returns to be north of 25% and possible even above 30%.
That may not have the sex appeal of Nvidia’s 88% 2017 year-to-date return, but I’m playing it more conservatively in 2018. And I expect that 2018 will be a year in which the proverbial tortoise beats the hare.
Let’s look at the numbers. At current prices, Enterprise Products yields an attractive 6.8%. Let’s say the share price rises to the point of shrinking the yield to 5%, which is a level I consider “about right” for Enterprise. Making no assumptions on distribution growth, that would put the share price north of $33 per share. Let’s say I’m being too aggressive and the shares rise to “only” $30 per share. That would still represent gains of nearly 22% from today’s prices. Add in the 6.9% distribution, and you’re getting close to 30% gains.
I have no doubt that plenty of stocks will return better than 30% in 2018. But they’re likely to be far riskier stocks. The beauty of EPD is that we can potentially see those kinds of gains in a stock with the risk profile of a boring electric utility.
And if I’m wrong?
Well, frankly, there are worse things than having your money parked in a stock yielding nearly 7% safely.
As of this writing, Charles Sizemore was long GM, EPD, ETE and KMI.