The Seen and the Unseen, Hedging Edition (With a Bonus Explanation of Why Airlines Hate Speculators)

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Most media coverage of hedging is appalling. It tends to focus on the accounting, and not the economics. Unfortunately, managements and analysts too often fall into the same trap.

This WSJ article about hedging by airlines is a case in point:

After decades of spending billions of dollars to hedge against rising fuel costs, more airlines, including some of the world’s largest, are backing off after getting burned by low oil prices.

When oil prices were rising, hedging often paid off for the airlines, helping them reduce their exposure to higher fuel costs. But the speed of the 58% plunge in oil prices since mid-2014 caught the industry by surprise and turned some hedges into big money losers.

Last year, Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation’s No. 2 airline by traffic, racked up hedging losses of $2.3 billion, while United Continental Holdings Inc., the No. 3 carrier, lost $960 million on its bets.

Meanwhile, No. 1-ranked American Airlines Group Inc., which abandoned hedging in 2014, enjoyed cheaper fuel costs than many of its rivals as a result. “Hedging is a rigged game that enriches Wall Street,” said Scott Kirby, the airline’s president, said in an interview.

Now, much of the rest of the industry is rethinking the costly strategy of using complex derivatives to lock in fuel costs, airlines’ second-largest expense after labor.

Roughly speaking, hedgers “lose”–that is, their derivatives positions lose money–about half the time. If the hedge is done properly, that “loss” will be offset by a gain somewhere else on the income statement or balance sheet. The problem is, it’s not identified specifically. In the case of airlines, it shows up as a lower cost of goods sold (fuel expense), but it isn’t identified specifically.

The tendency is to evaluate the wisdom of hedging ex post. But you cannot evaluate hedging that way. You hedge because you don’t know which way prices will go, and because a price move in one direction hurts you more than a price move in the opposite direction of the same magnitude helps you. If you knew which way prices were going to go, you wouldn’t need to hedge.

That is, hedging is valuable for an airline if reducing the variability of profits attributable to fuel cost changes raises average profits. How can this happen? One way is bankruptcy costs. If an airline loses $1 billion due to a fuel price spike, it may go bankrupt, and incur the non-trivial costs associated with bankruptcy: this is a deadweight loss. The airline receives no bonus equivalent in magnitude to bankruptcy costs if it gains $1 billion due a fuel price decline. Therefore, reducing the variability of fuel prices reduces the expected deadweight losses (in this case, expected bankruptcy costs), which is beneficial to shareholders and bondholders.

As another example, an airline that becomes more highly leveraged because of an adverse fuel price movement may underinvest (relative to what an unleveraged firm would) due to “debt overhang”: it underinvests because when it is highly leveraged the benefits of investment accrue to bondholders rather than shareholders. Again, there is unlikely to be a symmetric gain when the company becomes unexpectedly less leveraged due to a favorable fuel price movement. Here, reducing variability reduces the expected losses due to underinvestment.

Hedging can also reduce the costs of providing incentives to management through tying pay to performance. Hedging reduces a source of variability in performance that is outside of managers’ control: since they are risk averse they demand compensation for bearing this risk, so hedging it reduces compensation costs, and makes it cheaper to tie pay and performance.

The problem is, none of these things show up on accounting statements with the clarity of a 9 or 10 figure loss on a derivatives position put on as a hedge. The true gains from hedging are often unseen. The true gains are the disasters avoided that would have occurred in the absence of a hedge. There’s no line for that in the financial statements.

The one saving grace of the WSJ article is that it does mention a relevant consideration in passing, but doesn’t understand its full importance:

Another factor in the hedging pullback: a round of megamergers, capacity cuts and more fuel-efficient aircraft have fattened the industry’s profits, leaving carriers in better financial shape—and less vulnerable to a spike in fuel prices.

Two of the factors that make hedging value-enhance that I mentioned before (bankruptcy costs and underinvestment) are more relevant for highly leveraged firms that are at risk of financial distress. Due to the factors mentioned in foregoing quote, airlines have become less financially distressed, and need to hedge less. But that should have been the focus of the article, rather than the losses on previously undertaken hedges.

And that should be what is driving airlines’ decisions to hedge, although the statement of American Airlines’ president Kirby doesn’t provide much confidence that that is the case, at least insofar as AA is concerned.

Airlines are interesting because they have historically been among the biggest long hedgers in the energy market. This is true because they are one major consumer of fuel that (a) cannot pass on (in the short run, anyways) a large fraction of fuel price increases, and (b) are big enough to make justify incurring the non-trivial fixed costs associated with hedging.

Fuel costs are determined by an airline’s routes and schedule, and fuel consumption is therefore fixed in the short to medium term because an airline cannot expand or contract its schedule willy-nilly, or adjust its aircraft fleet in the short run. Thus, fuel is a fixed cost in the short to medium term. Furthermore, the schedule and the existing fleet determine the supply of seats, and hence (given demand) fares. Since supply and hence fares won’t change in the short to medium term if fuel prices rise or fall, airlines can’t pass on fuel price shocks through higher or lower fares, and hence these price shocks go straight to the bottom line. That increases the benefits for financial hedging: airlines have no self-hedges for fuel prices.

This is to be contrasted to, say, oil refiners. Refiners are able to pass on the bulk of oil price changes via product price changes: pass through provides a self-hedge. Yes, crack spreads contract some when oil prices rise (higher prices->lower consumption->lower utilization->lower margins), but refiners are able to shift most of the crude price changes onto downstream consumers. This reduces the need for financial hedges.

Further, many downstream consumers–gasoline consumers like you and me, for instance–don’t consume in a scale sufficient to justify incurring the fixed costs of managing our exposure to gasoline price changes. Therefore, a large fraction of those who are hurt by rises in the flat price of energy don’t benefit from financial hedging.

Conversely, those hurt by falls in flat prices, firms like oil producers and holders of oil inventories, don’t have self-hedges: they are directly exposed to flat prices. Moreover, they are big enough to find it worthwhile to incur the fixed cost of implementing a hedging program.

This leads to an asymmetry between long and short hedging, which is evident in CFTC commitment of traders data for oil. This asymmetry is why long speculators are essential in these markets. Without long speculators, the (predominant) short hedgers would have no one to take the risk they want to get rid of. This would put downward pressure on futures prices, and increase the risk premium embedded in futures prices.

Which is why airlines have been in the forefront of those hating on speculators. Not because speculators distort prices. But because long speculators compete with long hedgers like airlines to take the other side of short hedgers like oil producers and traders holding oil inventories. This competition reduces the risk premium in futures prices.

This makes it costlier for airlines to hedge, but their higher costs are more than offset by lower hedging costs for producers, stockholders, and other short hedgers. This is why speculators are vital to the commodity markets, and thereby raise prices for producers and reduce costs for consumers.

But apparently this is totally lost on Elizabeth Warren and her ilk. But as the WSJ article shows, ignorance about hedging–and hence about the benefits of speculation–is widespread. Unless and until this ignorance is reduced substantially, policy debates will generate much more heat than light.

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