Analyzing Yieldcos

Relatively new in the investing space, yieldcos give income investors a great way to participate in the renewable energy market.

Yieldcos, which are entities formed to hold operating assets and are most commonly seen in the renewable energy space, have had a resurgence of late. Initially created several years ago, yieldcos over-promised and under-delivered on dividend growth rates, which resulted in widespread privatization and selling pressure. Now though, continued emphasis on clean energy growth and investor interest in stable income has driven yieldcos to all-time highs. Like REITs, MLPs and most other high-yield investments, yieldcos have some unusual ways of doing things, and it’s important to understand how they work before investing. Here are some of the terms and concepts you should understand before buying your first yieldco.

Drop Down Acquisitions and Right of First Offer (ROFO)

Yieldcos can grow their income in two ways. The first is through inflation escalators, which increase the price paid for energy through existing contracts. But these escalators are typically small, about 2% per year.

The primary way that yieldcos increase their cash flow is by growing their asset base, by buying completed projects from their parent company or another development company. When these assets come from the parent company, the acquisition is called a drop down acquisition. The yieldco still has to pay for the assets, but the terms are agreeable, and often the yieldco has a right of first offer to the assets.

The yieldco’s right of first offer (ROFO) means the developer must attempt to negotiate the sale of the asset with the yieldco before offering it to third parties. If the yieldco isn’t interested or can’t agree on the price of the asset with the developer, then the developer has the right to offer the asset to third parties.

Cash Available For Distribution (CAFD)

If you look at a yieldco’s EPS, you’ll notice some crazy numbers. Like REITs, yieldcos have high non-cash expenses, like depreciation, plus they frequently issue new equity. So yieldcos prefer to use a metric called cash available for distribution (CAFD) to measure and track earnings growth.

CAFD is equal to income minus cash expenses, which includes salaries, facility maintenance and interest and principal payments on debt. But it doesn’t include non-cash expenses, like depreciation. CAFD is designed to give investors a better idea of how much cash the yieldco actually has that it can then pass on to investors. In addition, most yieldcos aim to distribute a certain percentage of CAFD to investors.

CAFD is a non-GAAP measure, so it can vary from company to company. But looking at CAFD growth over time, the CAFD payout ratio, and how the company’s expectations line up to reality should give you a good idea of how well the company is doing financially.

Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs)

Yieldco’s easy access to equity markets ultimately benefits their parent companies as well, creating a symbiotic relationship.

In addition, the parent companies of some yieldcos are compensated with “incentive distribution rights,” or IDRs. IDRs give the parent a right to a larger percentage of the yieldco’s distribution as it grows. They work similarly to marginal income taxes.

While IDRs provide an incentive for parent companies to support the yieldco, they also limit the speed of dividend growth above a certain level.

Return of Capital (ROC)

Lastly, it’s important to understand that a yieldco’s distributions aren’t ordinary dividends, but instead are usually classified as return of capital (ROC).

Return of capital is not considered income; instead, it’s treated as if the yieldco is simply giving some of the money you’ve invested in it back to you. As such, you’re not taxed on this portion of the distribution. Instead, it reduces your cost basis in the investment.

For example, let’s say you buy a yieldco today for $24, and receive an annual distribution in your first year of $1.60, which is classified entirely as return of capital. Your cost basis will be reduced by that amount, to $22.40.

And your cost basis will continue to be reduced by the return of capital amount (sometimes called shielded income) each tax year. Eventually, the total amount of these distributions may exceed your original cost basis in the investment, making your adjusted cost basis zero. If this happens, you can no longer decrease your cost basis, and you can no longer treat any distributions from that yieldco as return of capital. Instead, you must pay taxes on the full amount of the distributions, at your regular income tax rate.

When you sell the yieldco, you will have to pay the income taxes you’ve deferred over the life of the investment. That means you have to pay taxes at your regular income tax rate on the difference between your original purchase price and your reduced cost basis. (You’ll also have to pay regular long-term capital gains taxes on your profit in the investment, if you made one.)

This might not seem attractive, but there are myriad reasons why deferring taxes, or paying them later, is preferable to paying them now, including deferring your taxes until your income tax rate is lower. And any investor can see the logic in hanging on to the cash so you can invest and grow it now, and then pay the tax bill with it later.

*This post has been updated from a prior version

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