Friday, October 31, 2008

Understanding Southwest's Hedging

I don't normally pay much attention to the quarterly earnings reports of companies outside the energy sector, so I initially missed the confusion over the impact of fuel hedging on the third quarter results of Southwest Airlines. An article in yesterday's Washington Post brought this to light again, along with the effect of falling oil prices on the fuel hedging efforts of a diverse group of companies, including Coca Cola, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and local heating oil distributors. The reporting on this subject illustrates two important points: commodities hedging is no free lunch, and understanding its full consequences requires more that a superficial look at the bottom line.

This morning I pored over Southwest's quarterly earnings press release to see what had happened. I was suspicious of the headlines suggesting that hedging had pushed Southwest into the red, because the average futures price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil for the quarter was $118 per barrel--hence ExxonMobil's record-breaking earnings--still well above the level at which Southwest was generally understood to have hedged its jet fuel. After some scrutiny, and to my considerable surprise, I concluded that both the Post and the Wall Street Journal in their earlier story on Southwest's earnings appeared to have misinterpreted some key aspects of the hedging results. Discerning that wasn't easy, since Southwest saw fit to report their earnings on both a GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) and non-GAAP basis, and the intricacy of their "Reconciliation of Impact from Fuel Contracts" table forced me to jump-start some brain cells that have been dormant since my B-school financial accounting course.

Evaluating the benefit or cost of a hedge must include the result of the physical transactions it was intended to cover. In the case of Southwest, it appears that its unhedged fuel cost for the quarter--what it actually paid its fuel suppliers--was $1.387 billion. The hedges and related derivative contracts that settled in the quarter offset that by $448 million, reducing Southwest's effective fuel bill to $939 million. The problem that the Journal and Post focused on was related to future hedges, not those that unwound between July and September. Marking the company's total hedge portfolio to market resulted in an additional pre-tax cost of $247 million, reported as a special item. Factoring this in turned the company's modest operating profit of $69 million into a $120 million net loss, after tax. But it's not correct to say that hedging hurt Southwest. Had it not hedged at all, its after tax loss for the quarter would have been approximately $189 million, assuming it could have operated in the same manner. That seems unlikely, given the behavior of competitors with less active hedging programs.

But while the confusion over Southwest's earnings seems to arise from the requirement to recognize the reduced value of the future hedges still on its books as a loss to current income, this doesn't justify calls to set aside mark-to-market accounting. That special item should prompt investors to read the explanation Southwest has provided concerning its overall hedge portfolio, because it signals the prospect of further hedge-related losses in the future:

"In addition to our fourth quarter 2008 derivative position, we have derivative contracts for over 75 percent of our estimated 2009 fuel consumption at an average crude-equivalent price of approximately $73 per barrel; approximately 50 percent of our estimated 2010 fuel consumption at an average crude-equivalent price of approximately $90 per barrel; approximately 40 percent of our estimated 2011 fuel consumption at an average crude- equivalent price of approximately $93 per barrel; over 35 percent of our estimated 2012 fuel consumption at an average crude-equivalent price of approximately $90 per barrel; and have begun building a modest position for 2013."

That means that if oil prices remain between $60 and $70/bbl, then the effective cost Southwest will pay for jet fuel in future quarters could end up higher than that of competitors who didn't hedge or who hedged lower percentages of their expected fuel consumption than Southwest. Of course, that's not certain, either, because the price of oil might again rise above the level of their hedges.

The key to a successful hedging strategy is that companies shouldn't view it as a magician's hat out of which to pull larger profits, quarter after quarter. The benefit comes from reducing the volatility of earnings and enabling firms to continue operating more normally, when others have had to cut back drastically. Although this strategy could rebound on Southwest, if oil prices remain low for an extended period, falling prices may not hurt them as much as rising prices have hurt their less-hedged competitors, some of whom are now in a very poor position to capitalize on lower fuel costs.

Note: Energy Outlook will be on vacation next week, with postings resuming the week of November 10.

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