Make us your home page
Instagram

Airlines battling oil speculation

ATLANTA — Although planes take off and land round-the-clock at Atlanta's bustling airfield, Paul Jacobson isn't focused on flying, but rather on how much it costs to fly. As the senior vice president of finance for Delta Air Lines, he must navigate volatile fuel costs, which he thinks oil speculators are driving to punishing levels.

During peacetime, Delta is the world's largest consumer of jet fuel, edging out the Defense Department. So even a small move in oil prices has an impact on the bottom line of a company that flies at least 700 of its own large and regional airplanes and counts more than 1,400 aircraft under its companywide umbrella.

Delta and the Air Transport Association, the lobby for airlines, have been out in front among 98 companies and trade groups that banded together to create the Stop Oil Speculation Now coalition. It's pushing for curbs on financial players in the oil markets, which they believe are pushing fuel prices high to profit from trading.

For most of the past 30 years, end users of oil — such as airlines, oil refiners and trucking companies — traditionally composed 70 percent of the market.

Today, financial players with no intent of ever using a barrel of oil make up 70 to 80 percent of the market in any given week.

Airlines argue that huge investment inflows from pension fund investors and Wall Street firms into the oil markets are driving volatility in world oil prices and distorting the price of crude oil and jet fuel.

Critics contend that the huge inflow of investment money into oil amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy, with investors betting that prices in the future will go higher, thus driving them up. Wall Street investment banks touted commodities over the past decade as a way to reduce risk and enhance earnings, since commodity prices often moved in the opposite direction of stock prices.

"Given how much trading there is today in commodities, it warrants as much attention and scrutiny as the stock market gets, and deserves some checks on the power of any individual player so as not to unduly influence" pricing in oil markets, said John Heimlich, the Air Transport Association's chief economist.

At any point in time, Delta is hedging about 50 percent of its fuel costs. It does so through purchasing contracts for future delivery of oil, called futures contracts. It also does so by entering into private bets with Wall Street banks and other players in the unregulated over-the-counter market, sometimes called the swaps or derivatives market.

'Price discovery'

Futures markets are designed to bring together buyers and sellers, and through a process called "price discovery" they reach rational, mutually acceptable prices for the underlying commodity, in this case crude oil.

Since 2000, and especially since 2007, big institutional investors such as pension funds and commodity-investment funds have flooded into the commodities markets, taking positions in everything from coffee to crude.

This has led some analysts to argue that these financial players distort the price discovery process in the futures market and raise the price of oil.

Oil historian Daniel Yergin has coined the term "financialization" of oil prices. In recent months, as investors fretted over whether Greece would default on its bonds, the United States would raise its debt ceiling and China would lose control of inflation, they flocked to oil futures to diversify their investment base.

"It's almost like oil is now the holy grail financial vehicle proxy for the future," Heimlich observed. "If you are bullish on oil, buy Exxon Mobil stock. … You can hedge currencies, play the gold market. But oil has become the choice, the vehicle."

Airlines battling oil speculation 08/19/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 19, 2011 8:17pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Unlicensed contractor accused of faking death triggers policy change at Pinellas construction licensing board

    Local Government

    The unlicensed contractor accused of faking his death to avoid angry homeowners has triggered an immediate change in policy at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

    Last year Glenn and Judith Holland said they paid a contractor thousands of dollars to renovate their future retirement home in Seminole. But when they tried to move in on Dec. 14, they said the home was in shambles and uninhabitable. They sent a text message to contractor Marc Anthony Perez at 12:36 p.m. looking for answers. Fourteen minutes later, they got back this text: "This is Marc's daughter, dad passed away on the 7th of December in a car accident. Sorry." Turns out Perez was still alive. Now the Hollands are suing him in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  2. SeaWorld shares drop Monday to 2017 low after disclosure of federal subpoena

    Tourism

    The Orlando parent company of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks saw its stock drop 3.5 percent Monday to $15.10, its lowest price of this year.

    Killer whales perform at Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld in Orlando in 2011, before public pressure was placed on the theme park company to curtail its orca shows.SeaWorld has since announced an end to the traditional killer whale entertainment  at its theme parks. [AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack]
  3. Rick Scott appoints longtime ally Jimmy Patronis as Florida CFO

    State Roundup
    Rick Scott appoints Jimmy Patronis (background) as CFO. [STEVE BOUSQUET | Tampa Bay Times]
  4. Local gas prices plummet as Fourth of July holiday travel approaches

    Tourism

    TAMPA — Local gas prices are enjoying an unseasonal dip around the $2 mark just in time for the hectic Fourth of July holiday travel weekend.

    The price of regular unleaded gasoline has dropped to $1.99 at a Rally station on Pasadena Ave. South and Gulfport Boulevard South, South Pasadena.
[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  5. Air bag recalls, lawsuits lead Takata to file for bankruptcy

    Autos

    Shattered by recall costs and lawsuits, Japanese air bag maker Takata Corp. filed Monday for bankruptcy protection in Tokyo and the U.S., saying it was the only way it could keep on supplying replacements for faulty air bag inflators linked to the deaths of at least 16 people.

    Japanese air bag maker Takata Corp. CEO Shigehisa Takada bows during a press conference in Tokyo on Monday. Takata has filed for bankruptcy protection in Tokyo and the U.S., overwhelmed by lawsuits and recall costs related to its production of defective air bag inflators.
[(AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi]