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Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) is one of my favorite master limited partnerships. Its natural gas pipeline business coins cash and the yield on these partnership units is a very satisfying 6.8%. The total return (that’s dividend plus price appreciation) has been even more satisfying at 23.2% for 2010 after an absolutely stellar 42.7% in 2009.

But now I think the partnership is near a crossroads.

Just skimming through the company’s presentation at the December 7, 2010 Wells Fargo Energy Symposium will show you what I mean. ( ) The presentation is a litany of completed pipeline projects. Chisholm will go into operation in the second quarter of 2011. Hermanas went into operation in December 2010. Lumberjack? December 2010. Fayetteville? In service now. Tiger went onto service in December 2010.

So what’s next? Energy Transfer Partners runs a very profitable business but growth for a master limited partnership depends on raising capital, investing in new projects, and then collecting the revenue from those projects.

What I can see at Energy Transfer Partners is a lot of opportunities for smaller infill projects but I don’t yet know what the company sees as its big next steps. Without those big next steps, Energy Transfer Partners will be a very rewarding dividend play. But without that growth, it’s hard for me to see how the partnership delivers the kinds of total returns that it has produced in recent years.

I think Energy Transfer Partners has earned some wait and see time from me and I’m looking forward patiently to the February 17 earnings report and conference call to see what the vision for the future might be. If you own this I’d hold on. If you don’t, I’d wait and see what February 17 brings. In the meantime, as of January 10, I’m raising my target price to $54 a share, from $52, by March 2011.

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did not own shares of Energy Transfer Partners as of the end of November. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of November see the fund’s portfolio at  I’ll have the fund’s portfolio as of the end of December posted in a few days.