Airlines Launch Speculative Strategy

Posted July 11, 2008 at 5:40pm

Skyrocketing gas prices combined with a flagging economy have left the airline industry flailing. And nobody knows this better than the Air Transport Association.

The industry’s statistics are bleak. Since December, nine airlines have gone out of business; the industry is expecting to lose 30,000 jobs by the end of the year; and of the nation’s 600 commercial airports, 100 will not have any commercial service after 2008, according to the ATA.

As airline groups try to navigate their way through the turmoil, one issue has caught their ire: the futures market, which they argue has artificially pumped up oil prices to all-time highs, producing an almost unworkable business model.

To combat the problem, the airline industry and associated groups have organized a public relations campaign against the oil futures markets: Stop Oil Speculation Now.

The coalition, which formally was announced Friday at a press conference, is made up mostly of airlines, cargo carriers and other associations comprising fuel dealers, airport executives and unionized employees.

The announcement came days after the 38-member coalition sent out a missive to Capitol Hill signed by 12 airline industry chief executive officers, including Douglas Steenland of Northwest Airlines and Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines.

“A barrel of oil may trade 20-plus times before it is delivered and used; the price goes up with each trade and consumers pick up the final tab,” the CEOs wrote, calling on Congress to increase market oversight. “We believe that restoring and enforcing these limits, along with several other modest measures, will provide more disclosure, transparency and sound market oversight.”

In addition to the letter, the group also ramped up its grass-roots network.

Delta, AirTran and other airlines sent letters to frequent fliers asking them to contact Congress to pressure them to regulate oil speculation.

The result: More than 1 million airline passengers and employees have contacted Congress, according to ATA spokesman David Castelveter. The coalition has also mobilized executives to call lawmakers and orchestrated an ad buy with inside-the-Beltway publications including Roll Call, as well as the Wall Street Journal.

“We have been telling Congress and the public for months that this is an industry that is reeling from these high prices,” Castelveter said. “We believe speculation is artificially driving prices up, but we recognize Congress recesses very shortly for the summer. We need Congress to enact legislation before any more carriers go out of business.”

The industry’s charge came as Congress held a slew of hearings last week on the futures market, with Democrats under increasing pressure to pass energy legislation.

So far, there hasn’t been much consensus on what form regulation on the futures market will take. And although more than 10 bills have been introduced in Congress, the only consensus seems to be for more money to be appropriated to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Lawmakers have introduced bills that would limit so-called excessive spending and the amount of over-the-counter trades to producers while boosting traders’ margin requirements, which would increase the amount of capital they must put down.

Other proposals include adding a windfall profits tax to Big Oil’s profits and allowing the U.S. attorney’s office to bring antitrust suits against OPEC.

The coalition’s move to mobilize its grass-roots network left some in the financial services industry calling foul.

“Certainly activating grass roots is a strategy that many organizations have used over time, and no one would argue with their desire to try to execute something like that,” said Scott DeFife, senior managing director of government affairs for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. “I think the question needs to be asked about the accuracy of the content they are promoting.”

Industry lobbyists also criticized Southwest Airlines for signing onto the coalition. The airline has used the futures market to its advantage, locking in 70 percent of its gasoline at what is now a well-below market rate.

The ATA’s Castelveter said the coalition isn’t opposed to using the futures markets to lock in a price — and then take delivery of the product. What it opposes is the buying and selling of futures for sheer speculative purposes.

“We’re opposed to index speculation that has loopholes in it to artificially drive up the price of oil without using it,” Castelveter said.

Tactics aside, financial services lobbyists give the airline industry credit for creating a maelstrom of discontent among lawmakers’ constituents.

“They have scared Members of Congress,” said one financial services lobbyist involved in the debate. “I think it’s a total scapegoat. They’ve gotten Members of Congress who otherwise wouldn’t have blamed the financial services market to do so.”

Indeed, financial services groups say that more regulation could raise the cost of fuel even higher.

“There is no one reason as to why oil prices are exactly where they are right now and there certainly is no silver bullet solution that is going to reduce oil prices, as some are contending they can reduce them through oil regulation,” DeFife said.

To address the barrage of complaints about the futures industry, several groups have formed an ad hoc coalition, which includes the Futures Industry Association, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, SIFMA and the Managed Funds Association, among others.

Besides calling on hired guns and CEOs from companies to make Hill visits, the associations say they don’t expect to mobilize a much larger campaign.

Financial services industry lobbyists argue that much of the talk on Capitol Hill is not likely to go anywhere.

Many of the same actors spent time on a provision in the farm bill that broadens the CFTC’s oversight of unregulated transactions in the futures market.

One major provision closes the so-called Enron loophole by no longer exempting over-the-counter energy trades on electronic energy commodity markets from CFTC oversight. Acting CFTC Chairman Walter Lukken will report to Congress Sept. 15 on how the new law is working.

“Last year, we spent the entire year debating the same issues that were ultimately resolved as part of the farm bill,” said Greg Zerzan, a lobbyist for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association.

The financial services lobbyists said it is irresponsible to introduce legislation regarding the CFTC before seeing how the farm bill provisions work.

Yet Castelveter and the Stop Oil Speculating Now coalition say they aren’t going to take no for an answer.

“We want to see a bill passed and signed by the president” by August, Castelveter said. “Coalition members are going to continue to call on Congress telling them of the urgency to pass legislation now.”