Hedging and Value in the U.S. Airline Industry



This article discusses the findings and practical import of the authors' study of the fuel hedging activity of 28 U.S. airlines during the period 1992-2003. The aim of the study was to answer the following question: Does fuel hedging add value to the airlines and, if so, how? The airline industry provides a natural experiment for investigating the relation between hedging and value for a number of reasons: (1) the industry is by and large competitive and remarkably homogeneous; (2) airlines are exposed to a single, volatile input commodity—jet fuel—that represents a major economic expense for all competitors; and (3) fuel price increases cannot be easily passed through to customers because of competitive pressures in the industry.

The results of the study show that jet fuel hedging is positively related to airline firm value. Those airlines that hedged their fuel costs had Tobin's Q ratios that were 5-10% higher, on average, than those of airlines that did not hedge. What's more, the higher the proportion of future fuel requirements hedged, the larger the valuation premium. The authors' results also suggest that the main source of value added by hedging in the airline industry is its role in preserving the firm's ability to take advantage of investment opportunities that arise when fuel prices are high and airline operating cash fl ows and values are down. Consistent with this argument, the study finds that the value premium associated with hedging increases with the level of the firm's capital spending.

The authors also report that the most active hedgers of fuel costs among the airlines are the larger firms with the least debt and highest credit ratings. This result is somewhat surprising, at least to the extent that smaller airlines are expected to have larger financial distress costs (as a percentage of firm value) and hence greater motive to hedge. One explanation is that the smaller airlines have lacked either sufficient resources or the strategic foresight to acquire a derivatives hedging capability. A second possibility—one that is consistent with the study's main findings—is that the largest airlines also have the highest costs of financial distress (even as a percentage of firm value) in the form of larger growth opportunities that could be lost as a result of high leverage and financial risk. In other words, only the largest airlines are typically able to buy distressed assets during periods of industry weakness; to the extent this is so, such firms may also have the most to gain from hedging.