MLP ETF vs. MLP ETN: Exploring the Difference

MLP ETF vs. MLP ETN: Exploring the Difference

3 Min.

Both MLP ETFs and ETNs track an MLP index, but they differ in the way their distributions are taxed. MLP ETNs usually track the underlying index better compared to MLP ETFs. This is because MLP ETFs are structured as C-corporations, leading to double taxation, which means that taxes are paid at the corporate level and by the individual on dividends received. 

On the other hand, an MLP ETN is structured as an unsecured debt where the distributions are considered taxable income. While investing directly in an MLP provides better tax benefits, using an MLP ETF or MLP ETN avoids the need to file a K-1 tax form. Additionally, they can be held in individual retirement accounts (IRAs) without negative tax consequences.


In the world of Master Limited Partnerships (MLP), the primary difference between an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) and an Exchange-Traded Note (ETN) is the tax implications of their distributions. Each investment vehicle, whether the MLP ETF or ETN, aligns with an underlying MLP index as part of its tracking mechanism.

Tax Impacts on MLP ETF Performance

A common structural framework in MLP Exchange-Traded Funds involves their organization as C-corporations. This setup entails a mandatory corporate income tax payment before distributing earnings to investors, thereby dampening the ETF's overall performance.

MLPs offer a distinctive advantage through their pass-through taxation structure, sidestepping taxes at the partnership level and mitigating double-taxation concerns. However, the MLP ETF, structured as a C-corporation, undergoes corporate taxation, eroding this tax advantage. Consequently, the MLP ETF experiences a notable tracking error compared to the performance of the underlying MLPs.

Structural Variances and Tax Implications in MLP Exchange-Traded Notes (ETNs)

The MLP ETN, structured as unsecured debt by a bank, mirrors the MLP index, circumventing corporate tax obligations and enhancing tracking accuracy. However, its drawback lies in taxing distributions as taxable income, entailing specific tax ramifications.

In contrast, possessing outright ownership in an MLP results in untaxed distributions at reception. These distributions act as reductions in the investment's cost basis, with taxes deferred until MLP interest transfer. Capitalizing on substantial depreciation and tax deductions, MLPs often exhibit distributable cash flow exceeding taxable income, offering effective tax deferral.

Primarily situated in the energy sector, MLPs face constraints stemming from Congress's 1987 restrictions on their structural application. This sector, characterized by significant investments in oil and gas pipelines and storage, experiences annual depreciation, contributing to its fiscal efficiency.

Estate Planning and Tax Efficiency in MLP Transfers

When transferring MLP interest to heirs, the cost basis adjusts to the transfer date value, nullifying prior tax liability from the return of capital distributions. This strategic estate planning tool, exclusive to ETFs or ETNs, offers advantages unattainable for direct MLP stock owners.

Both ETFs and ETNs spare investors from the complexities of filing a K-1 tax form required for MLP outright ownership distributions. Unitholders, seen as business owners due to their limited partnership, often find K-1 filing cumbersome.

Furthermore, MLP ETFs and ETNs can reside in individual retirement accounts (IRAs) without adverse tax implications. Holding MLP units directly in an IRA triggers immediate payment of unrelated business taxable income, negating tax-deferred benefits. Consequently, investors seeking MLP exposure in their IRAs may find ETFs and ETNs advantageous.


MLP ETFs and ETNs differ in their tax structures, impacting tracking precision. MLP ETNs outperform due to their avoidance of corporate taxes, while MLP ETFs, as C-corporations, face double taxation. Though direct MLP investments offer tax benefits, using ETFs or ETNs avoids K-1 forms and allows IRA inclusion without negative tax consequences. The strategic estate planning advantage of adjusting MLP interest, exclusive to ETFs or ETNs, underscores their potential over direct MLP stock ownership.

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)
Exchange-Traded Notes (ETNs)
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