Commodity price hedging is a popular trading strategy frequently used by oil and gas producers as well as heavy consumers of energy commodities such as airlines to protect themselves against market fluctuations. During times of falling crude prices, oil producers normally use a short hedge to lock in oil prices if they believe prices are likely to go even lower in the future, while heavy consumers like airlines do the exact opposite: Hedge against rising oil prices which could quickly eat into their profits.

Nearly all of an airline's costs are somewhat predictable, except one: the short-term costs of fuel. Fuel is typically the biggest line item in an airline's expense book and can account for nearly a third of total operating costs.

Two years ago, many large carriers ditched their oil hedges after suffering massive losses due to persistently low oil prices. But with oil prices constantly taking out multi-year highs, they have now been forced to reverse course and are hedging aggressively, with brokers reporting the busiest spell of consumer hedging in years.

And, there's growing evidence that fuel hedges are working as they should this time around.

Hedging is paying off

Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) and Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) are the only major U.S. carriers that have consistently hedged the cost of jet fuel. Southwest is the only large U.S. airline that is also a low-cost carrier, and fuel accounts for a third of its operating costs. The airline began hedging its fuel costs in the early 1990s after crude prices spiked during the first Gulf War and has religiously hedged through thick and thin.

Southwest aims to hedge at least 50% of Southwest's fuel costs each year and exclusively use call options and call spreads. Company's treasurer, Chris Monroe, and his team trade crude-oil derivatives as a proxy for jet fuel. They deal with some of Wall Street's shrewdest commodity-trading desks, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and seven more traders.

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Southwest lost money on its hedges between 2015 and 2017, but this year oil hedges are paying off big-time for the Texas-based carrier.

Related: Oil Prices Rebound As Crude Supply Tightens

According to the Financial Times, a crack team of four fuel traders at Southwest Airlines has managed to save the company a whopping $1.2 billion this year through smart hedging. Orchestrated by the company's treasurer, Chris Monroe, and his team, Southwest hedges have slashed its fuel costs by 70 cents to between $3.30 and $3.40 a gallon this quarter, the carrier disclosed in a recent trading update. Southwest has pegged the fair market value of its fuel-derivative contracts for this year at $1.2 billion.

While oil prices have climbed 40% in the year-to-date, middle distillates have seen an even bigger surge:  jet fuel recently traded as high as ~$320/b in New York  ($7.61/gallon), a massive ~$200+ premium to crude feedstock prices. The jet fuel premium is ~10x larger than any premium seen in the past 30 years. Southwest's hedges must have shielded the company from some major price shocks.

"Our fuel hedge is providing excellent protection against rising energy prices and significantly offsets the market price increase in jet fuel in first quarter 2022," Southwest CFO Tammy Romo said on the carrier's first-quarter earnings call.

Southwest is just one of many companies looking to protect themselves from high oil prices. Over the past few months, there has been a renewed appetite from many airlines as well as an influx of first-timers, including Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), as well as trucking and manufacturing firms.

"We're also very fortunate that for the next 12 months, we're very well hedged on fuel. I would ascribe that more to dumb luck than supremely intelligent management. But nevertheless, we have 80% of our fuel purchased forward out to March 2023 at less than $70 per barrel," Ryanair Holdings Plc (NASDAQ:RYAAY) CEO Michael O'Leary revealed during the company's latest earnings call.

To be sure, hedging in the current market can be expensive, thanks to the red-hot demand for hedging products. Those higher hedging costs have been accentuated by a lack of liquidity in recent months, making it harder to find counterparties and agree on prices. But with oil prices unlikely to come down any time soon, heavy oil users are left with little choice but to hedge or risk paying billions more in extra fuel costs.

By Alex Kimani for

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