Buy, Sell, or Hold: Ferrellgas Partners

When considering any stock for your portfolio, don't be swayed by just the positives. Examine its pros and cons, and decide whether it's possible upsides outweighs its risks. Let's take a look at Ferrellgas Partners LP (NYS: FGP) today, and see why you might want to buy, sell, or hold it.

With a history dating back to 1939 and a market capitalization of about $1.6 billion, Ferrellgas is one of the top propane and propane accessory providers in America, serving roughly a million customers nationwide. (Fans of "King of the Hill," the TV show featuring a propane salesman, may appreciate that earlier this year, Ferrellgas Chairman Jim Ferrell was inducted into the Propane Hall of Fame.)

The company's dividend yield is a certain attraction for many investors, recently yielding around 9.9%. In today's environment of ultra-low-interest rates, that kind of income can cause drooling. It's not set in stone, though, and given some challenges facing the company (which I'll discuss in the next section), the dividend may not be sustainable at current levels.

Meanwhile, Ferrellgas is a Master Limited Partnerhsip (MLP), an organizational structure that offers some potentially big tax benefits. If you play by the rules, you may be able to collect dividend income and defer taxes on it until you sell your shares. The tax rules can be a bit complicated, but the K-1 form sent out by the company annually will make things easier, and tax pros can make easy work of it, too.

Some may be drawn to Ferrellgas for its innovation. Last year, for example, it launched a new business, FerrellAutogas, to serve the alternative automotive fuel market. Excitement should be tempered, though, until the unit proves its value. Ferrellgas has also been promoting propane-powered commercial lawn mowers, touting their benefits for the environment.

The company has made a bunch of promising acquisitions over the years. In 1999, for example, it bought Thermogas, which added 300,000 customers and some new business lines to the company. (By 2003, Ferrellgas had made 65 acquisitions since its IPO -- and its total acquisition count recently topped 225.) In 2004, it bought Blue Rhino, the biggest brand name in propane tank exchanges. There's opportunity for the company to grow further from acquisitions, too, as roughly 62% of the industry is in the hands of independent retailers.

Ferrellgas hasn't made public on its website any investor presentations since March of 2011, but in that one, it listed some of its positive characteristics. These include its geographic diversification, rising cash flows, economies of scale, captive (and growing) customer base, and operational spread, such as its growing Blue Rhino tank-exchange business. It has more than 45,000 tank-exchange locations nationwide, up from 28,500 in 2003.

Insider ownership can also be a good thing for a company, with employees thus aligned with shareholders. About 37% of Ferrellgas shares are in the hands of insiders -- some 6% with chairman James E. Farrell and 31% with employees via a stock ownership program.

There are a bunch of factors in Ferrellgas' recent history to dissuade folks from investing. For example, though its last earnings report was a rather rosy one, before that it had underperformed analysts' expectations for eight quarters running.

Even more troubling is its debt load, topping $1 billion at the end of April, while its cash pile was less than $12 million. In addition, the company hasn't been generating gobs of cash with which to pay down debt, leaving it in a seemingly precarious position. Peers such as AmeriGas (NYS: APU) also have significant debt, but nowhere near as much, and its debt seems more manageable. AmeriGas, for example, recently had interest coverage of 3.3, meaning it could meet its interest obligations from earnings before interest and taxes. Ferrellgas' interest coverage has been lower than 1.0. Suburban Propane (NYS: SPH) and UGI (NYS: UGI) had roughly as much debt as equity, but interest coverage of close to 4.0 or more.

Volatility can be another concern. Ferrellgas' fortunes are affected by factors such as the weather. A warm winter this past year led to less propane being used to heat homes. (That was slightly offset by an early spring extending the propane-grilling season.)

Growth prospects can temper one's enthusiasm for Ferrellgas, as well, since propane is a fairly mature market and not likely to grow by leaps and bounds.

Finally, Ferrellgas is somewhat dependent on a small group of suppliers. In 2011, 55% of its propane came from six suppliers. That can leave suppliers with more power over Ferrellgas.

Given the reasons to buy or sell Ferrellgas, it's not unreasonable to decide to just hold off. You might want to wait for several impressive quarters in row featuring growing earnings instead of losses. You might also want to see the company getting its debt under control.

The verdict
I think I'll be holding off on Ferrellgas, at least for now. It may well perform spectacularly in the coming years, but there are plenty of compelling stocks out there with more certain futures. Still, everyone's investment calculations are different; do your own digging and see what you think.

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Longtime Fool contributorSelena Maranjian, whom you canfollow on Twitter, holds no position in any company mentioned.Click hereto see her holdings and a short bio.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of UGI. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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