President Trump released his tax framework at the end of September, and many investors are curious about how the president’s tax plan would affect MLPs. At only nine pages long, it lacks the intricate detail of proposed legislation, but some general conclusions can be drawn.
Under the current system, MLPs are partnerships and tax pass-throughs, meaning investors receive an IRS Schedule K-1 for their tax returns. As such, investors typically pay tax on their portion of the MLP’s income at their own personal income tax rate. However, due to accounting rules and accelerated depreciation flow-through, much of this (often 70%-90%) is considered return of capital and tax payments are deferred until sale. Let’s take a look:
Individual tax rate
According to Trump’s framework, the individual tax rate structure would be simplified to three brackets from the current seven brackets and the highest rate would drop from 39.6% to 35%. With this lower rate, investors in the highest tax bracket would now pay slightly lower taxes on the portion of their MLP income taxable in the current year.
The U.S. corporate tax rate would change for the first time in 25 years, from 35% to 20%, under Trump’s plan. Since MLPs do not pay federal income tax, this reduction would not affect their taxes. Most management teams agree that even a reduced tax rate would not incentivize them to convert from an MLP to a C corp.
However, new energy infrastructure companies would have less incentive to structure themselves as MLPs, because while a 0% tax rate is still better than a 20% rate, many investors prefer the familiarity of C corp investments—and the simplicity of Form 1099s for tax returns.
MLP investment products, which are structured as C corps, could see a benefit as they would only need to accrue 20% instead of 35% in deferred potential federal income taxes.
Most MLPs currently take advantage of accelerated depreciation rules, which is part of what enables them to classify a large portion of the distribution as return of capital. Immediate expensing could help drive that number even higher. The larger effect, however, would be to shrink the benefit of being an MLP even further. New or existing energy infrastructure companies could become C corps and build—and expense—assets at such a pace that they could pay very low taxes.
The framework remains vague here, suggesting “[modernizing] these rules to ensure that the tax code better reflects economic reality and that such rules provide little opportunity for tax avoidance” for industries that are currently receiving special tax treatment.
Given the current administration’s emphasis on infrastructure projects, it would stand to reason that the beneficial tax structure afforded to MLPs would remain, as it has in nearly every other proposed tax reform legislation. However, if the objective of this tax reform is to equalize the playing field for all industries and sectors, anything is fair game.
Will these changes drive MLPs to become C corps? Even if their industry-specific tax benefit is maintained, there is a potential under this framework for some MLPs to convert. The simplified Form1099 tax reporting appeals to a broad investor base, and since C corps are eligible for inclusion in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, there is a possibility of accessing some of the billions of investment dollars tracking that index.
Still, as this framework is only intended to serve as a guide for members of Congress who will write the actual legislation, final analysis must wait until the full documents become available.
Maria Halmo is the director of research at Alerian, an independent provider of MLP and energy infrastructure market intelligence.
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