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.
I’ve been listening to my good friend Todd Zenger for the last few years explaining that the strategic management field is predicated on the idea that corporate managers know more than the uninformed stock market and its lazy analysts. Dick Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy makes a similar point. The idea is that finding unique resource synergies is a good way to get competitive advantage but a bad way to please narrow-minded investors who hate unique strategies that are hard for them to evaluate. Raghurum Rajan’s recent presidential address to the American Finance Association makes a similar point, although with a much more positive spin on the role of equity markets in supporting the creation of entrepreneurial enterprises. With such an eminent set of eloquent and insightful advocates, it’s hard not to tentatively consider the perplexing idea that stock markets systematically undervalue powerful synergistic corporate strategies.
Then I wake up.
You probably followed the news about HP’s massive writeoff on its perplexing Autonomy acquisition of a year ago. The headline to that story was HP CEO Meg Whitman’s claim that Autonomy had cooked its books and fooled its auditors prior to HP’s purchase of the firm under previous, perplexingly hired, CEO Leo Apotheker. It isn’t clear that the extent of the alleged fraud can explain the gigantic size of the writedown by HP, but in any case outsiders like short-seller Jim Chanos, much of the British tech analyst community, and the very useful John Hempton, proprietor of the Bronte Capital blog, had long smelled a rat. They thought, even prior to the acquisition, and using only the company’s official accounting statements, that there was something fishy about Autonomy’s books. How could HP’s finance team and the outside auditors have failed to notice this at the due diligence stage? It’s perplexing.
An interesting development in venture financing is the creation of the “lean finance” model. This is an adaptation to winner-take-all markets; i.e., markets in which the best performer captures a massive share of the market. The funding model is to provide the minimum funding necessary to reach the point at which it becomes apparent who the winner is likely to be. Then, investors do a huge, “shovel-in” round of funding to seal it. On Friday, the Swedish commerce startup Klarna raised $155m following its May, 2010 round of only $9m.
Dropbox, a company whose product is well-known in academic circles, similarly raised $250m at the point it boasted 45m users, following a previous round of only $7m. An intriguing wrinkle is that different experts may have different opinions about who the winner is going to be. Around the same time Dropbox raised its shovel-in round of funding, so did one of its primary competitors, Box.net, which raised $81m at the point it hit 7m users. The solution to the puzzle may be that Box.net is viewed as the likely winner of enterprise segment (having turned down a $500m acquisition offer), while Dropbox is poised to take the personal user segment.
I’ve been following the crowdfunding trend – I like the effort to democratize the financing of various types of projects and initiatives. Kickstarter projects are fun to look through, Kiva is great, Crowd Cube is now successfully funding startups (including equity stakes), and there are many many more such efforts.
I’ve wondered about the possibilities of crowdfunding research (here’s the orgtheory post on that), and there indeed seem to be some successful efforts: here are dozens of #scifund projects looking for funding (here’s their blog).