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What is an MLP?


In the United States, a master limited partnership ("MLP") is a limited partnership that is publicly traded, also known as a publicly traded partnership. Under the U.S. internal revenue code, any partnership, including a publicly traded MLP, is not subject to tax at a partnership or "corporate level". Instead, each partner in the partnership is personally responsible for paying tax on his or her share of the partnership's income. Because MLPs are not subject to corporate taxation, they act as pass-through entities. If they generate net income, it must be distributed to the partners in order to avoid taxation at the partnership level. Because of this special pass-through status, most MLPs have higher dividend rates than your typical common stock of a C corporation.

To obtain the tax benefits of a pass through, MLPs must generate at least 90% or more of their income from qualifying sources, as specified in the Internal Revenue Code. Most MLPs are in the energy business, so to many investors the term MLPs is synonymous with energy companies. But there are a few other kinds of MLPs, mostly in the financial services industry.

Our database currently contains 60 MLPs that are traded on U.S. stock exchanges, with a total market capitalization of $320,502,537,973. As of today, the average dividend yield on the 60 MLPs in our database is 7.10%. See our list of MLPs.

Complicated Tax Situation For Investors

When someone buys shares in an MLP, the investor becomes a "limited partner" in a partnership. The investor is sharing in the gains or losses of that partnership, which imposes some special tax accounting requirements on the investor. Many first-time investors in MLPs do not understand that.

Since partnerships don't pay tax at a "corporate" level, a partnership must allocate its income to each of its partners, including limited partners. At the end of each year, a partnership prepares a federal form K-1 which allocates the partnership's income for the year to each of it's partners. Each partner, including the limited partners, must report on their income tax return their share of the partnership's earnings. These earnings are taxed at the investor's tax rate for ordinary income. So this creates a slightly more complicated income tax return for an investor. Note that the income allocated to each limited partner on the K-1 is different than the amount of dividends the investor has received. An investor may have to pay tax on partnership earnings, even if the investor never received any of the MLP's dividends.

Because each partner has already paid tax on their share of the partnership's earnings via the K-1 reporting process, a "dividend" from an MLP is treated much differently than a dividend from a common stock. MLP dividends, which should probably be referred to as a distributions, are usually considered to be a return of capital, and thus aren't taxable to the individual MLP investor. Distributions from an MLP reduce an investor's basis, or "cost" in the shares of the MLP. So when the investor eventually sells his or her shares in the MLP, the investor's net gain will be higher because of the effect of the cumulative distributions reducing his or her's basis in the shares.

Does owning an MLP in an IRA or retirement account avoid the complicated tax situation? Not really. There is something called Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), which can arise when a tax-advantaged account directly invests in MLPs. UBIT is generated when Unrelated Business Taxable Income (UBTI) exceeds $1,000 in a given year, as the tax is designed to prevent unrelated business activity within a tax-exempt vehicle such as an IRA or 401(k).

Robert Baird published a good overview of the common tax questions related to owning an MLP: read now.

Distinct Asset Class

Most popular stock market indexes, like the S&P 500, NASDAQ-100 and Russell 1000, do not include MLPs in the list of eligible securities - such indexes typically only include common stocks, REITs and mortage REITs. And most broad market U.S. exchange traded funds ("ETFs"), which track all kinds of different stock market indexes, also do not include much MLP exposure, if at all. So MLPs are a distinct asset class apart from common stocks that every investor should be aware of and think about.

MLPs are also unique because of their concentration in the energy sector. Most MLPs are engaged in the oil and gas industry. Here are the MLPs in our database classified by GICS sector:

GISC Sector# of MLPsMarket cap%Avg Dividend Yield
Consumer Discretionary3$12,263,954,7913.8%6.5%
Real Estate3$1,878,504,4790.6%2.9%
Total60$320,502,537,973100% 7.10%

Notice that there are also a lot of MLPs in the financials sector. That's because some well-know asset management firms are organized as MLPs. Here are the MLPs in our database that are in the financials sector:

SymbolDescriptionMarket CapCurrent Dividend YieldActions
ABAllianceBernstein Holding LP$3,831,682,9368.52%Analyze
APOApollo Global Management LLC$32,926,642,8452.75%Analyze
ATAXAmerica First Multifamily Investors LP$383,992,1927.57%Analyze
CODICompass Diversified Holdings $1,314,089,6685.40%Analyze
IEPIcahn Enterprises LP$17,869,538,0787.34%Analyze
SUNSunoco LP$3,494,318,4557.73%Analyze

Size Categories

Although there are some large MLPs, MLPs on average tend to skew a little smaller than U.S. common stocks. Here's a breakout of MLPs by size category:

Category# of MLPsMarket cap%Avg Dividend Yield
Large cap8$220,752,992,74868.9%7.0%
Micro cap12$1,611,030,4020.5%7.9%
Mid cap16$73,845,541,34223.0%7.0%
Small cap24$24,292,973,4817.6%7.9%
Total60$320,502,537,973100% 7.10%

As explained in our article size categories, there is no standard definition of what makes up a "large cap" stock. On our website, we use: large cap > $10 billion, mid cap between $2 billion and $10 billion, small cap between $300 million and $2 billion and micro cap <$300 million.

Alerian Indexes

There is a company called Alerian that has created a niche by becoming a specialist in stock market indexes that track MLPs. These indexes are widely followed by MLP investors:

SymbolDescriptionInception DateActions
AEDWAlerian Midstream Energy High Dividend Index01/01/1900Analyze
AMEIAlerian Energy Infrastructure Index04/01/2013Analyze
AMEIXAmerican Century Equity Growth Fund I Class05/09/1991Analyze
AMNAXIndexAlerian Midstream Energy Total Return Index01/01/1900Analyze
AMZAlerian MLP Index06/01/2006Analyze
AMZIAlerian MLP Infrastructure Index11/12/2009Analyze
AMZIXAlerian MLP Infrastructure Total Return Index11/12/2009Analyze
AMZXAlerian MLP Total Return Index06/01/2006Analyze
ANGIndexAlerian Natural Gas MLP Index06/22/2010Analyze
ANGIXIndexAngel Oak Multi-Strategy Income Fund Institutional Shares06/28/2011Analyze
CRYPTOAlerian Galaxy Global Cryptocurrency-Focused Blockchain Equity, Trusts and ETPs Index01/01/1900Analyze


How do MLPs perform as an asset class? Let's look at AMZ, the Alerian MLP Index, an index that consists of the top 85% based on market capitalization of the energy MLPs. Let's compare the market price of AMZ to the market price performance of U.S. common stocks, using SPY, the SPDR S&P 500 Index ETF, as our proxy:

Let's also compare AMZ's total return index (AMZX) to the S&P 500 Total Return Index (SP500TR):

How closely do MLPs track the rest of the energy sector of the stock market? Let's compare the market price performance of XLE, the SPDR Energy Select Sector ETF, which tracks an index that contains all the common stocks in the energy sector of the S&P 500 Index, to AMZ:

Because of their primary exposure to the energy sector, MLPs have tended to have "boom or bust" performance. But many investors look towards MLPs because of their higher than average dividend yields and because at times they have performed very well as an asset class.

ETFs and ETNs related to MLPs

As explained above, most U.S. stock market indexes do not include MLPs in their list of eligible securities. So most U.S. stock ETFs and ETNs also don't include exposure to MLPs, because they focus on common stocks and REITs. But there are a few ETFs and ETNs that specialize in MLPs:

SymbolDescriptionInception DateMarket CapCurrent Dividend YieldActions
AMJJPMorgan Alerian MLP ETN04/02/2009$373,335,206,4206.99%Analyze
AMLPAlerian MLP ETF08/25/2010$6,057,997,2178.23%Analyze
MLPAGlobal X MLP ETF04/18/2012$1,326,109,5267.47%Analyze
IMLPiPath S&P MLP ETN01/04/2013$048.05%Analyze
ATMPBarclays ETN+ Select MLP ETN03/13/2013$05.59%Analyze
MLPXGlobal X MLP & Energy Infrastructure ETF08/06/2013$884,211,1515.79%Analyze
ENFRALPS Alerian Energy Infrastructure ETF10/31/2013$115,479,0006.12%Analyze
AMZAInfraCap MLP ETF10/01/2014$280,541,4827.39%Analyze
MLPOCredit Suisse S&P MLP Index ETN12/04/2014$06.13%Analyze
AMUBETRACS Alerian MLP Index Series B ETN 10/09/2015$06.32%Analyze
MLPBETRACS Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index Series B ETN 10/09/2015$05.99%Analyze
PYPEETRACS NYSE Pickens Core Midstream Index ETN08/21/2018$04.57%Analyze
MLPRETRACS Quarterly Pay 1.5X Leveraged Alerian MLP Index ETN06/03/2020$09.70%Analyze
AMNAETRACS Alerian Midstream Energy Index ETN06/22/2020$05.51%Analyze
AMNDUBS AG ETRACS Alerian Midstream Energy High Dividend Index ETN07/16/2020$06.37%Analyze
AMTRETRACS Alerian Midstream Energy Total Return Index ETN10/21/2020$00.00%Analyze
UMIUSCF Midstream Energy Income Fund ETF03/24/2021$180,850,9604.56%Analyze

Note that when you see a market cap of $0, that means we don't have data available for that ETF.

Note that there are a lot of ETNs related to MLPs. As explained in our article what is an ETN?, an ETN is a special type of publicly traded debt issued by a large investment bank that pays "interest" based on the returns of a stock market index. There are probably so many ETNs related to MLPs because an investor can buy an ETN and gain exposure to MLPs without being subject to being treated as a "limited partner" who must pay tax based on a K-1. Buying an ETN avoids the complicated tax situation associated with MLPs.

Note also that the ETFs related to MLPs can be organized as C corporations and subject to tax at a fund level. No other ETFs are subject to tax at a fund level. But by organizing themselves as a C corporation, an MLP ETF handles the tax complexity of owning an MLP. So an investor in a MLP ETF doesn't have to worry about the tax complexities of owning an MLP.

Here are the ETFs that are organized as C corporations:

SymbolDescriptionInception DateMarket CapCurrent Dividend YieldActions
AMLPAlerian MLP ETF08/25/2010$6,057,997,2178.23%Analyze
MLPAGlobal X MLP ETF04/18/2012$1,326,109,5267.47%Analyze
AMZAInfraCap MLP ETF10/01/2014$280,541,4827.39%Analyze

There are some challenges when trying to compare the performance of ETNs and ETFs in the MLP space, especially when an ETF is structured as a C corporation. For one thing, dividends from a C corporation ETF are net of tax. Also, a C corporation ETF may not accurately track the MLP index it follows, because of the effect of recording tax at a corporate level. A C corporation ETF records "deferred taxes" on its balance sheet, which reduces the fund's NAV, and thus it doesn't accurately track the index it is following. So be careful when comparing the returns of ETFs and ETNs in the MLP space.

All data is a live query from our database. The wording was last updated: 06/02/2020.

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