Here's What to Expect When Energy Transfer Partners Reports Earnings

If you are investing in pipeline companies, the last thing you'd want in a quarterly earnings release is a bunch of surprises. Luckily when Energy Transfer Partners reports earnings after market close on August 5, chances are there won't be too many surprises.

Aside from its small retail marketing segment, more than 80% of the company's operational income is generated through fixed-fee contracts that keep it insulated from commodity price swings. So despite the big decline in share price this year, earniings results shouldn't look that much different than it did this time last year. Here's a quick look at what you should, and shouldn't, look for.

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What we got last timeBecause of its rather complex structure -- something its managing company Energy Transfer Equity is looking to correct -- the financial statement for Energy Transfer Partners can be a little complex. The most important number for investors to look at, though, is distributable cash flow attributable to the partners of ETP. This is the one that most directly impacts the cash payout for the company's unitholders.

If we look exclusively at this number -- prorated for the acquisition of Regency Energy Partners -- distributable cash available for unitholders came in at $846 million, a $2 million bump from what it produced one year prior. That was enough to cover its $826 million in distributions, but there wasn't a whole lot of breathing room as distribution coverage ratio was just 1.04 times. Breaking out the company's results by segment, we'll see that we got a rather mixed bag, where losses in its gas transmission and storage and other segments were covered by a good-sized bump in its midstream, liquids transportation and storage, and retail segments.

Source: Energy Transfer Partners earnings release, author's chart.

What to look forTrying to keep track of the corporate structure of Energy Transfer requires a really good road map and some GPS.Since Energy Transfer Equity has been shuffling around assets under its management with dropdowns, consolidations, and acquisitions, it will be difficult to evaluate Energy Transfer Partners' segment-by-segment results on operations alone for several quarters at least. So the best ting to do is focus on its distributable cash flow attributable to unitholders.

According to its most recent management presentations, Energy Transfer plans to raise its distributions by 5% each quarter in 2015 while maintaining a distribution coverage ratio of at least 1.05 times. Obviously, to achieve this, distributable cash flow to unitholders will need to incrase at a very similar rate.

Don't worry about the Williams merger stuffOne question that has been lingering lately is whether Energy Transfer Equity will be able to finalize the deal to acquire Williams Companies . There has been a lot of talk about this proposed dea, but if you are a unitholder of Energy Transfer Partners, then this deal will have little impact on what you own specifically. If the deal were to happen, then Energy Transfer Equity would acquire Williams Companies, the general partner, which would give it control of Williams master limited partnership.

The only way this deal could impact Energy Transfer Partners is if Energy Transfer Equity were to consolidate Energy Transfer Parrtners and Williams Companies MLP under one roof. It's not completely beyond the realm of possibility because Energy Transfer Equity did just that with this recent Regency merger. However, Energy Transfer Equity has been just as happy letting its other subsidiary MLPs operate separate one another and let them each pay their incentive distribution rights.

For now, though, the bigger element to focus on is how the company's organic operations perform.

What a Fool believesIf you are looking for a reason why shares of Energy Transfer Partners are down more than 20% so far this year, I can't tell you because it is just as confusing to me as well. Energy Transfer's creative financial moves aside, the company's operations have performed well throughout the downturn and it's still generating strong cash flows to support distribution growth. Unless there are some real big unforeseen operational hiccups we have not been made aware of so far, then this quarter's results shouldn't look too different than last quarter's.

With Energy Transfer Partners' yield pushing above a tantalizing 8% yield, it's hard not to like this stock today.

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