Topic of the Week: Fuel Hedging

People love to claim that Southwest’s fuel hedging strategy was brilliant last decade for keeping costs low. Others say it was terrible because it postponed Southwest from having to face a new reality of higher fuel prices. In the last quarter, Southwest paid 20 cents more per gallon on average than US Airways, an airline that does not hedge. So, what do you think about hedging?


18 Responses to Topic of the Week: Fuel Hedging

  1. David says:

    Hedging is portrayed in some of the business press as a way of making money for a company. It’s not. The purpose of hedging is to reduce uncertainty or risk and increase control over costs or revenues.

    A similiar idea concept applies with insurance. If you don’t buy insurance, you save a premium and in good years, you make money, but in bad years you have a very large bill to pay medical fees or repair your home. If you do buy insurance, you gain control over your unknown costs – you know that you won’t have to spend a lot of money from your savings to pay hospital fees.

  2. Hedging is insurance in a way. That said, I think Southwest’s very successful hedges a few years ago only delayed a day of reckoning that is sure to come. Their labor costs are out of whack, and Gary Kelly knows it. Still, I have some level of faith that they will find a way to address it.

  3. Jason says:

    It comes down to the cost of the hedge versus the value of that hedge. In a one off scenario you can not tell whether Southwest is a winner or loser as events are discrete and they fuel prices moved against them on this occasion. In general though, there is a business in selling insurance. This means that most likely the seller of the insurance is profitably running a business which is a cost then passed on the the flyer.

    In the new airline model of charging usage based fees i like the idea of applying that idea to the fuel hedge. Airlines should offer an option to purchase tickets that have a floating price relative to the cost of fuel at a discount to a regular ticket. This allows the airline to hedge your specific tickets fuel cost against the user. I.E. you could self insure your ticket. I would be happy to self insure a $600 airplane ticket if i knew i was actually saving money over the long run. And for those not willing to take that risk then there is the traditional modeled ticket with insurance baked into the price. BTW not a new idea one of the discount carriers already thought of this.

  4. Roger says:

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

  5. Nothing was wrong with hedging until 1999-2000 when Glass-Steagall was removed and the Commodities Modernization Act was enacted (the Enron loophole). Since then non-commercial interest in futures has grown from less than 20% of total contracts to now representing 50-60%. With the entry of non-commercial players volatility in commodity prices has increased 18 fold.

    If you remove the financial players from the futures markets we would again have a functional system to insure airlines from price shocks.

  6. DAB says:

    To my knowledge, Southwest was not hedging. The evidence for that was when oil was going up, they suspended their “hedging” program since they didn’t see the point in hedging over $38/bbl, or whatever the number was.

    Hedging and insurance are not exactly the same thing. Insurance is paying for the offset of risk. Hedging is mathematically and methodologically maintaining a financial position through a disciplined trading strategy.

    Obviously what I was remembering was early in the last decade, and maybe they modified and actually built a properly executed and disciplined program. Another point on the thing is that to really know what you are hedging, you need to start by drawing the full swap diagram with all of the positions in boxes and arrows labeled. When you would do that from the perspective of an airline, I would think you would find that at the root of the issue the airline isn’t actually short fuel on any given day. The airline is short the ability to move passengers whose tickets they have sold on any given day. Therefore, it is ticket revenues that provide the basis of your hedge.

    You could realistically hedge that on a day lag or so if you have some basis for identifying the cost vectors that make up how you are going to satisfy that ticket revenue. That leads to the conclusion that you have also to hedge the entire company’s position, not down to, say, an individual flight. I doubt it would be effective to split the hairs to that level due to pricing models and basis considerations.

    To hedge, just send the fuel cost component from the previous day’s sales activity to a trade floor quant. The quant crunches the total position to see the effect on the short jet fuel position of the trader. Maybe sales have gone up, but fuel cost has gone down sufficient that the trader actually sells future position as an example. Fuel is the trader’s fundamental position, though not the airline’s fundamental position as I say above. The trader then executes the strategy, be it hedge or spec actually.

    • DAB says:

      Note: in my 4th paragraph, I mixed up the word basis. In the first sentence, I mean it in the usual sense. In the last sentence, I mean basis as in the trading world of the difference in cost between point a and point b.

  7. Fuel hedging is the Las Vegas of the airline business.

  8. US hasn’t completely ruled out hedging. It feels the cost isn’t worth the risks. Hedging does entail risk. Insurance, per se, exists to mitigate risk. So you essentially insure against risk with a risky strategy.

    Hedging is useful when there’s a lot of price volatility. Oil has been trading in a rather narrow range for quite a while. Hedging is less effective in this environment. I believe if US perceives that oil prices will become volatile, it will hedge.

    • The last sentence of the first paragraph might be clearer if it read, “Hedging attempts to mitigate risk with what is essentially a risky strategy.”

  9. Don says:

    The only thing that matters in this industry is profits which they have no problem with. They know what they are doing. I don’t think fuel will ever reach $150/barrel. But if it does they will be fine.

  10. Cliburn says:

    As DAB suggests, hedging really means buying Jet fuel as you sell tickets… matching the sales with the purchase of input costs on a percentage basis.
    I think that is a smart business decision.
    Going long Jet fuel is not hedging. I am not sure what Southwest was doing.
    In the past they were speculating.

  11. Jimmbbo says:

    Hedging is gambling by another name… solid business practices don’t include roulette, blackjack or predicting fuel prices, because there are far too many things that can spike fuel prices that are outside the Company’s control…

    A well run business handles the realities of the marketplace, and doesn’t spend shareholder money betting they can outguess a volatile marketplace.

    • Mike Felts says:

      Actually hedging is nothing of the sort of what you are describing. Hedging is effectively paying a risk premium in order to remove the volatility of the marketplace and has a place in a number of legitimate business practices.

  12. john says:

    Didnt Herb once say that hedging fuel was basically the same thing as gambling? (might have that wrong – and/or it may have been in the 90s)

  13. Good topic. 2 comments
    1) Hedging costs money. The better your financial position is, the less it costs. Southwest management ended up looking brilliant in making a long-term hedging bet at the time that they did. In a sense they did it because a)they could and other airlines could not and b) There was little downside, as fuel prices had been quite low
    2) I think it is an accepted fact that Southwest was losing money as an airline and the hedge was making money (I don’t even know if they hedged JetA, probably heating oil). They were better off selling off the hedge position for billion$ but they did not, and engaged in “hedge-fueled” expansion when everyone else contracted due to fuel shock.

    The true strategy question is something this (example): is it better in the long run to enter DEN and lose money but eventually cripple/kill Frontier than not expand in DEN at all? We will never know the true cost/benefit.

  14. Chris says:

    Several comments here are off the mark, but that’s primarily because “hedging” hasn’t been defined very well.

    Simple, insurance-like hedging is very straitforward. You essentially pay a price to lock in a maximum future price for fuel. This is like insurance. You pay a fixed fee, if the event happens (fuel goes above the “insured” price), you get a payout it. If fuel doesn’t exceed the strike price, nothing happens. Just like insuring against your house burning down or getting into a car accident. The only risk here is that you paid for something you ultimately didn’t need (thus adding to your CASM). If this is gambling, then so is auto insurance.

    To mitigate the cost, and this is where some airlines really got themselves into trouble, you can partially pay for the “hedges” you have purchased by essentially selling other hedges. At this point, you’ve narrowed your hedging strategy to the point where you have taken a view, a position, on where the price of oil/fuel will be in the future. I don’t call that hedging anymore, I call that speculation.

    Hedging, in my view, serves only to dampen extreme shocks and essentially buy more time for the company to make appropriate strategic changes. E.g., if oil goes to $200 a bbl and stays there, and I’ve got hedges out 6 months, then I’ve got a little time to adjust my network in as cost effective a manner as possible. 12 months would be even better, as fixed costs are called “fixed” for a reason. 12 months is a long enough window to actually change your fixed cost structure (fleet reduction).

    So, there is a very sound business case for any company to hedge volatile input costs, just like there is a business case to take out insurance policies. Few companies should really be speculating unless that is what they do (hedge fund).

    The real question about LUV is whether they were hedging or speculating. For a few years, they looked more like hedge fund that happened to operate an airline. The airline actually cut into their trading profits.

  15. Mike says:

    As others have noted, hedging, in the true sense of the word, is far from gambling, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

    If an airline doesn’t hedge they are essentially saying one of two things:
    1. We don’t think oil prices will rise significantly
    2. If oil prices rise significantly we are confident that we can pass on the higher fuel price, maintain adequate profit margins and remain competitive.

    One of the other issues that is rarely addressed when airline hedging is being discussed is that it takes credit (cash, credit lines and/or a strong balance sheet) to hedge and many airlines aren’t exactly “credit rich” right now.

    Regarding Southwest and US Air, I think the better question is, what will happen to US Air if oil prices rise significantly in a short period of time?

    If you want to see an example of airline hedging best practices (not to be confused with having the lowest priced hedges), take a look at Lufthansa.

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