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Propane, a clean burning and non-toxic gas, is created as a byproduct of oil and natural gas processing and is used to heat homes, cooking and sometimes to power vehicles as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). According to the National Propane Gas Association, about 8.1 million households in the United States use propane to heat their homes as an inexpensive alternative to electricity. New Jersey based Suburban Propane services over 1 million residential and commercial customers in 30 states. Suburban Propane also provides customers the option to rent large propane tanks from them and since these tanks are often buried underground, switching to a different provider is not an easy option, giving Suburban Propane a "lock" on certain customers.
The company hedges part of the propane it has in physical inventory by going short propane futures. When propane prices rose earlier this year, the company had to take a $14.5 million loss against its hedges in the fiscal third quarter ended June 28, 2008. This was right before oil hit its peak of $147 in July. If the company continued its hedging activity in its fiscal fourth quarter, which ended September 2008, the sharp decline in oil and propane prices during the quarter should prove beneficial to the company. Even if the company suspended its hedging program, the decline in propane prices should benefit the company as there should be no significant drop in retail propane prices that Suburban Propane charges its customers. This is one of the key reasons whySuburban Propane attractive ahead of its fourth quarter conference call scheduled on Friday, November 14th, 2008.
The company also has a consistent history of raising quarterly distributions and has done so 19 times since 1999. Distributions in the recent past have been financed entirely through operating income and the company has built up its cash position to $118.6 million, while holding long-term debt steady at $548 million over the last three years.