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Bank of America Upgrades Linn Energy Amid SEC Review

Tickers in this article: BBEP BRY LINE LNCO

Updated from 9:38 a.m. ET top reflect closing share prices and additional analyst commentary throughout.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts on Monday said they don't believe the accounting practices of Linn Energy have inflated or distorted the cash flow the embattled oil and gas driller pays to its investors through dividends.

In a Monday upgrade of Linn Energy, the BAML analysts said Linn Energy's accounting for derivatives used to hedge its oil and gas production and the capital expenditure it sets aside to maintain energy output haven't misled investors or put the company's high dividend at risk.

BAML's analysis centers on the non-generally accepted accounting practices (GAAP) Linn Energy reports to its shareholders, and in particular, its so-called "distributable cash flow," or DCF.

Linn Energy uses non-GAAP measures such as DCF to support a current monthly cash distribution to shareholders of 24 cents, one of the highest dividend-yields among Master Limited Partnerships (MLP) in the oil and gas sector. Linn Energy's DCF covered 88% of its recently increased dividend payments, even as the company reported a net loss in its most recent quarter.

The Houston-based oil company's accounting practices and the non-GAAP metrics that drives its dividend have come under scrutiny in recent months from Barron's and independent research firm Hedgeye Risk Management.

Both Barron's and Hedgeye argue Linn has used non-GAAP accounting to overstate the cash flow it can pay out to shareholders and under-report expenses tied to its hedging practices and capital expenditure. The scrutiny comes at a crucial time for Linn Energy, which is seeking to acquire Berry Petroleum in a stock merger that the company expects will significantly bolster its energy assets and lead to an increased annual dividend of $3.08 a share.

Questions on the transparency of Linn's non-GAAP accounting practices were heightened when the company disclosed in early July that the Securities and Exchange Commission had opened an informal review into its non-GAAP financial reporting and its hedging strategies. The SEC also requested the preservation of communications relevant to the company's proposed merger with Berry Petroleum; however, the regulator has not made an opinion on Linn Energy's accounting practices.

While the BAML analysts said Monday they aren't attempting to call an outcome of the SEC's informal review, they did give a clear affirmation of the company's most controversial accounting practices.

"We do not believe LINN's stated distribution coverage would be materially impaired had the put strategy not been employed while we believe LINN's stated level of maintenance capital is entirely consistent with reserve replacement cost and peer company results for those operating in similar regions," the analysts wrote in their Monday note to clients.

Linn Energy has been criticized for capitalizing and not expensing the costs of put contracts it uses to hedge its oil and gas production. Since the derivative contracts are capitalized, they are not included in Linn's reconciliations from non-GAAP earnings before interest, taxes depreciation and amortization (Ebitda) such as DCF.

After a sharp sell-off in the wake of Linn's disclosure of the SEC's review, the BAML analysts upgraded the company's shares to 'Buy' from 'Neutral.' Linn Energy shares gained over 8% to $25.13 in Monday trading. The shares have fallen nearly 25% in the past month. Berry Petroleum shares gained over 1% to $40.43.

Still, the BAML analysts lowered their price target for Linn Energy from $41 a share to $30 a share, citing the company's elevated risk profile amid investor scrutiny and an uncertain outcome of the SEC's review.

A handful of analysts downgraded their ratings and price targets for Linn Energy in early July, however, few expressed concern over the company's long-term earnings or its accounting practices.