Last week the energy giant Kinder Morgan Energy Partners announced that it will restructure itself into a traditional C corporation, moving away from the “master limited partnership” (MLP) structure it helped to popularize almost a quarter century ago. While C corporations pay corporate income tax on their profits, the income of MLP’s is passed through to its individual partners and taxed (at least in theory) under personal income tax rules, so these companies can bypass the corporate income tax entirely.
Unlike most partnerships, MLP's are publicly traded. Soon after the first MLP was created in the early 1980s, Congress clamped down on the use of this form: a 1987 law treats most publicly-traded partnerships as corporations for tax purposes. But lobbyists for the extractive industries got an exception for energy companies, including those engaged in exploration, refining and even “fracking.” IRS private letter rulings have gradually expanded the scope of the energy-related activities that MLP’s can engage in, and as a result the number and value of these tax-exempt entities has grown dramatically
Kinder Morgan appears to be swimming against this tide. By all accounts, the company’s sheer size is making the MLP form too unwieldly, and may even be hindering the correct valuation of their assets: Kinder Morgan actually forecasts that moving to the C form will constitute a smart tax move, apparently because they expect many of their depreciable assets to be given a sharply higher valuation after the deal goes through. Or maybe there's more that we don't know. Perhaps the merger to a corporate form will be followed by an inversion transaction or just more aggressive offshore profit-shifting.
Kinder Morgan’s announcement came on the same day that a Treasury Department spokesperson signaled Treasury’s concern about the growing number of MLP’s and its effect on future federal tax revenues. The Obama administration’s concern about MLP’s is understandable: earlier this year, a General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that, because of the complexity of partnerships, the Internal Revenue Service simply doesn’t have the resources to audit these business structures, even when they suspect them of wrongdoing.
Treasury seems to be considering halting the gradual expansion in the scope of these partnerships. Maybe it's time for Congress to shut them down altogether. For every Kinder Morgan abandoning the MLP form as too complicated, there are dozens of others lining up to take advantage of this hole in the tax system. Companies, particularly large publicly-traded ones, shouldn't be able to just restructure to take advantage of the tax-dodge flavor of the day. At a time when the corporate tax is under siege from companies seeking to invert to tax havens, spinning off REITs, or just agressively shifting profits offshore, the MLP invasion is a clear example of a tax break that Congress could stop in its tracks.