A review of George Szpiro’s 2011 book on the history of the Black-Scholes option-pricing formula uses Southwest Airlines’famous fuel-price-hedging strategy as a key piece of its explanation for why firms might want to use options. Southwest’s hedging has received a lot of attention; the gains and losses on these financial trades have rivaled operating profits and losses on its income statement. Most commentators have applauded this aggressive trading activity, merely cautioning that sometimes Southwest guesses wrong about future oil prices and loses a lot of money.
What no one seems to ask is why Southwest shareholders would want the firm to be speculating in the fuel market in the first place. Unless these hedges materially reduced the risk of bankruptcy–and Southwest’s balance sheet is typically stronger than its rivals’–the classic argument applies: Shareholders should not want corporate managers to hedge industry-specific risks, such as swings in fuel prices, because they can very easily deal with these risks themselves by holding a diversified portfolio of stocks (including oil firms) or even by buying their own options on oil prices. Southwest’s financial risk reduction via hedging conveys little or no benefit to the owners of the firm.
But wait, many will object–doesn’t hedging give Southwest a cost advantage over its rivals when oil prices go up? And since these hedges are often accomplished by options, isn’t there an asymmetry, since when Southwest guesses wrong, it only loses the price it paid for the option? Doesn’t the airline therefore lower its costs by these trades, gaining a leg up on its rivals?
The answer is No. These hedges have no impact whatsoever on Southwest’s cost of being an airline operator. They constitute an independent, speculative financial side business, a business that is exactly as good for Southwest shareholders as the CFO’s team is at outguessing the fuel market. Even when Southwest guesses right, it is not improving the airline business’s competitiveness.
To see why this is true, think about the incremental fuel cost to Southwest of running a flight with or without the hedge. If the spot price of fuel is $x/gallon at the time of the flight and it consumes y gallons, then the fuel cost is xy. If Southwest has successfully hedged the oil price, then it will make a bunch of money after closing out its position, but it would still independently save $xy by not running the flight. If Southwest has guessed wrong and lost money on the hedge, it would also save $xy by not running the flight. So the cost of operation–the increment in expenditure caused by producing another unit–is unaltered by the hedging strategy.
This situation should be easy to visualize because the hedges are on oil rather than jet fuel and because they are settled for cash rather than physical delivery. But even if the hedges were denominated in physically delivered jet fuel, successful or unsuccessful hedging would have no impact on airline operating costs. If Southwest just bought fuel early for $(x-a)/gallon and stored it until the spot price was $x/gallon, the opportunity cost of the flight would still be $xy, since the airline could cancel the flight and sell y gallons for that amount. The incremental expenditure difference between flying and not flying is exactly the same. (If opportunity cost confuses you, visualize that Southwest has some fuel on hand purchased at the lower hedged price and some at the spot price, and note that it doesn’t matter which barrel of gas goes into which plane–all the fuel is fungible, and it is all worth $x/gallon if that’s what it could be sold for.)
Now, risk-averse behavior by managers may be in their own interest, depending on the form of their compensation, the structure of the labor market, and their perceived ability differential over their peers. But it is of little help to the owners of public firms that are far from bankruptcy. That’s a point that should not be hedged.
Over at Reason.com they have interesting text and video on the sad tale of 38Studios, New England baseball hero Curt Schillng’s collapsed videogame venture that attracted nary an independent private investor but sucked up $100 million from Rhode Island taxpayers. Some takeaways from the story:
1) When inexperienced and undermanaged quasi-public economic development corporations go chasing glamour ventures to try to cover up their state’s abysmal business climate, bad things are likely to happen.
2) When the glamour venture is headed by a star athlete with zero experience or expertise in his chosen field, and appears to have no experienced management at all, the odds go down.
3) When a venture making a totally conventional product, such as a massive multiplayer game, can’t get any private investors, there’s probably no conceivable public policy justification for a subsidy.
4) People like Schilling who claim to be against big government but then reach their hands into the taxpayers’ pockets to fund their own dreams are, at best, intellectually stunted.
5) Schillings’s pro-Bush political views may helped save the taxpayers of Massachusetts, because Democratic governor Deval Patrick turned Schilling down flat even though the pitcher is an immensely popular legend among Boston Red Sox fans.
Over at the American Scientist (in an overall interesting Jan-Feb. 2013 issue) we have a column arguing that there’s no need to worry about a contagion of fraud and error in scientific publication, even though the number of publications has exploded and the number of retractions has exploded along with them. The basic pitch: the scientific literature is wonderfully self-correcting. The evidence given: the ratio of voluntary corrections to retractions for fraud looks kind of high, and journals with more aggressive and welcoming policies toward corrections have more of them. I kid you not.
But wait, you say. How is that evidence at all probative? Good question, as one says when the student goes right where we want to take the discussion. At the very least, we’d want to see if the rate of retractions is going up over time, but somehow those figures and graphs don’t appear in the article. But what we’d really like to know is how many non-retracted, non-corrected, and non-commented articles are in fact erroneous or misleading despite peer review, and here the article is silent. It’s evidence is almost completely non-responsive to the question it purports to address. But the problem goes deeper.
Recent public concerns, including on this blog, have noted pressures for sensationalism, publication bias, data snooping and experimental tuning bias, and many similar causally based arguments. John Ionnadis has made a pretty good career pounding on these issues and trying to place upper and lower bounds on the problem. The devastating Begley and Ellis study of “landmark” papers in preclinical cancer research found that only 6 of 53 had reproducible results, even after going back to the original investigators and sometimes even after the original investigators themselves tried to reproduce their published results. Here is what the latter authors think about the health of the peer-reviewed publishing system in pre-clinical cancer research:
The academic system and peer-review process tolerates and perhaps even inadvertently encourages such conduct5. To obtain funding, a job, promotion or tenure, researchers need a strong publication record, often including a first-authored high-impact publication. Journal editors, reviewers and grant-review committees often look for a scientific finding that is simple, clear and complete — a ‘perfect’ story. It is therefore tempting for investigators to submit selected data sets for publication, or even to massage data to fit the underlying hypothesis.
Of this substantial and growing literature on the prevalence of error and publication of invalid results, the American Scientist article is entirely innocent. Instead, it uses a single Wall Street Journal article as its target for attack, and even there ignores the non-anecdotal parts of the story–evidence that retractions have been growing faster than publications since 2001 (up 1500% vs. a 44% increase in papers), that the time lag between publication and retraction is growing, and that retractions in biomedicine related to fraud have been growing faster than those due to error and constitute about 75% of the total retractions.
Perhaps a corrigendum is in order over at the Am Sci.
A September 2012 article in PNAS found that most retractions are caused by misconduct rather than error:
A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealed that only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes.
In a remarkably shoddy example of anti-market propaganda emanating from the Nottingham Business School, the Economist runs a screed that starts out with the debatable but reasonable premise that business leaders exaggerate their omniscience. It somehow ends up with the unsupported conclusion that business schools should abandon economics, finance, and the pursuit of profit for the cant trio of “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “leadership for all not for the few.”
The crude equivocating shifts from intellectual humility to moral humility to altruism would qualify for an F in any class on composition, much less philosophy. The vague assertions about “business excess” (entirely unsupported or even defined), the implicit attribution of these excesses to the teachings of business schools (ditto), and the wild leap at the end (replacing business school education with an agora-like setting in which sophists mingle with scientists and philosophers with philistines to figure out what are “social needs”), all conduce to a massive loss of reader brain cells per sentence. This article might be useful as a sort of mine detector–anyone who finds it congenial is best separated from responsibility for educating or commenting on business or economic issues.
Barry Lynn, apparently some sort of John Kenneth Galbraith wannabe, has an amusingly cockeyed post over at the Harvard Business Review blog. He seems to think that state regulations protecting local beer distributors from vertically integrated competitors are the font of virtue, preserving needed diversity in the beer market by allowing craft and micro-brewers to get their product delivered. But if the big brewers were legally able (and motivated) to foreclose distribution of the small brands, they would be legally able to do it without vertically integrating into distribution (by requiring exclusivity).
A simpler analysis: When there were many competing major brewers, independent multi-brewer distributors made economic sense, since they eliminated needless duplication of sales and delivery of all those brands to retail establishments. With the consolidation of the beer industry into two giant companies that own all the big brands (and a shift from on-premises to at-home consumption), a single-brewer distribution firm can now internalize almost all those economies. Then the beer industry starts to look a bit more like the soft-drink industry, where two major firms own and develop all the major brands and we don’t blink an eye at their bottler/distributors having exclusive relationships with the upstream brand owners or even being vertically integrated with them. If your local Costco or supermarket won’t carry a micro-brew or an off-brand soda, it’s unlikely to be due to market power on the part of the distributors.
UPDATE: It seems that AB InBev, owner of Budweiser and many other beer brands, is indeed shifting to more of a product innovation strategy and running into distribution problems with these new products:
“That’s not to say that AB InBev has perfected the process. Profit this year was hurt by higher distribution and administration costs in the U.S. as the brewer struggled to keep up with demand for Platinum and Lime-A-Rita, which required extensive — and expensive — countrywide distribution.”
So maybe there are strategic reasons why AB InBev would want more control over its distribution pipeline.
Where do great ideas come from? A popular notion among creativity experts is that recombination of preexisting ideas in a new context is the form that most if not all creativity takes. One more datum: Courtesy of my lovely wife, it seems that George Lucas may have been voguing, so to speak, when he came up with one of his most iconic images.