Despite a spate of derivatives scandals, companies continue to use hedging instruments to protect against swings in interest rates, commodity prices, fx rates and equity values.

Over the past decade, the risks arising from organizations' use -- or, more typically, misuse -- of hedging instruments such as futures and options have become all too clear. These tools played a role in the bankruptcy of Orange County, Calif., in 1994 and Enron's 2001 implosion.

More recently, allegations have surfaced that mortgage giant Fannie Mae has improperly accounted for its hedging activities.

Given these and similar events, it's reasonable to ask why any company would give derivatives a second glance. But it would be a mistake to assume that the hedging instruments themselves were the primary cause of the derivatives scandals. The reality is that Enron et al. either used these tools inappropriately or accounted for them deceptively.

If they're used carefully -- and admittedly, that can be a big "if" -- hedging products and strategies can help organizations reduce risk. "They're like a hammer," says Steven Mann, associate professor of finance at Texas Christian University's Neeley School of Business in Fort Worth. "You can either build a house or kill someone."

In fact, companies that shun derivatives may be exposing themselves to unnecessary risk. "There are people that avoid [derivatives] to the peril of the company," notes Steven Braverman, managing director with Tahoe Advisers LLC, a derivatives consulting firm in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

For some organizations, derivatives are indispensable. Consider the recent surge in energy prices. Crude oil leapt from about $34 per barrel in January 2004 to $55 in late October. If they didn't routinely hedge, businesses that purchase large amounts of fuel oil -- airline companies, for example -- would have faced an enormous increase in their operating costs.

For the most part, corporations use hedges to protect themselves against a quartet of exposures: swings in interest rates, commodity prices, foreign exchange rates and equity values. In addition, businesses are increasingly hedging against credit risk -- exposures arising from a drop in the value of another organization's corporate debt.

Companies can arrange hedges through futures exchanges such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but futures contracts involve considerable work because the parties must record any changes in the market value of the underlying asset and settle any profit or loss on a daily basis. (See Derivatives' Diversity sidebar.) The exchanges are used primarily by dealers and professional traders, according to Charles Smithson, partner with Rutter Associates, an advisory and education services firm in New York City.

Many companies prefer to use the over-the-counter (OTC) market, Smithson notes. To set up an OTC hedge, a company contracts directly with a dealer. These transactions are usually straightforward. "You describe what you want, and the dealer puts together the structure," Smithson says.

Creating a Hedging Policy

The key to effective hedging is to leverage derivatives in a disciplined manner in order to reduce risk while ensuring that treasury managers resist the temptation to speculate on the direction of markets and prices. "Transactions should be asset-and-liability-management driven, not based on a view of the future," notes Robert Brooks, Ph.D., SouthTrust professor of financial management at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Companies that use derivatives need a comprehensive hedging policy. It should define the risks that the organization will hedge against and the types and quantities of instruments it will buy; specify the costs the company will incur to hedge; and identify the persons responsible for executing transactions, monitoring the hedging program's performance and reporting it to the board.

"People have to know what the rules are," says Bennet Koren, partner and head of the consumer financial services group with law firm McGlinchey Stafford in New Orleans. "The stakes are too high to have it any other way, in terms of potential losses."

When Southern Co., an Atlanta-based energy company, implemented a hedging program in 2001 to reduce its exposure to fluctuating energy prices, its senior management decided to establish a risk control office, says Wayne Moore, director of regulatory affairs and energy policy. "That was to ensure that a risk management policy was in place, along with risk limits, and [to specify] the types of commodities and instruments" that the company would use, he reports. "If a transaction is not in the policy and doesn't line up with business objectives, people can't enter into it," he notes.

Southern's corporate governance board is responsible for approving its hedging policies. The risk control office, which reports to the CFO, is responsible for implementing those policies and independently measuring and monitoring the exposures that the company's business units manage. This division of duties "ensures compliance with risk management and credit policies," Moore says.

A Structured Program

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. is another organization that takes a consistent, disciplined approach to its hedging activities. "We focus not on forecasting where prices are going but on managing costs," says Laura Wright, senior vice president of finance and CFO. Most of the company's hedges are geared toward smoothing volatility in its fuel costs, which constitute its second-largest expense category behind salaries and benefits, according to Wright.

The goal of Wright and her colleagues is to hedge 50 percent of the company's exposure two years out and to be 80 percent to 100 percent hedged during the current period. "It's a structured program," she says. "We start early, establish a budget, build positions and layer them in."

Southwest's hedging program uses a combination of call options, fixed-price agreements and collars. Call options give the company the right, but not the obligation, to buy a specified amount of an underlying asset at a set price -- the strike price -- at a future time. If the market price of the asset falls below the strike price, Southwest simply lets the option expire.

Fixed-price agreements are privately arranged hedges in which Southwest agrees to pay, at a specified future date, the price stipulated in the contract for a future delivery of a commodity. If the market price is higher than the contract price at settlement time, the counterparty pays the difference. If the market price is lower than the contract price at settlement, Southwest incurs that additional expense. "There are no dollars up front, and you're protected from upward price increases," Wright says.

Collars are options that incorporate a price floor as well as a price cap. Say the parties agree that the collar's floor will be $30 and its limit $35. If the average daily price of the underlying commodity during the life of the hedge exceeds $35, the counterparty pays Southwest the difference between the average price and the $35 strike price. If the average price is below $30, Southwest pays the counterparty the difference. If the average price comes in between $30 and $35, both parties walk away with nothing.

In-House or Outsourced?

Organizations looking to implement a hedging program often face staffing challenges. Many treasury departments are already struggling to meet all of their responsibilities, and they may lack the time needed to get up to speed on derivatives.

Companies can turn to third-party providers, such as investment banks. But Brooks advises against that move. "It may be wise to listen to a cardiologist, but it's not wise to listen to an investment banker regarding hedging risk," he says. One reason some outsourced hedging programs fall short is that they are sold, rather than bought, he notes. The banker may have an incentive to sell you a more complicated product than you need because it comes with a bigger fee.

Because the market is disjointed, various financial institutions offer very similar products at different prices, according to Som Dasgupta, head equity trader with PNC Capital Markets in Pittsburgh. Choosing a provider without carefully investigating a range of offerings can be a costly mistake -- to the tune of six or seven figures even on a single hedge. Brooks notes that "it doesn't take very long to accumulate losses due to inappropriate hedging activities or noncompetitive pricing." Before signing any outsourcing contract, companies should seriously consider adding a derivatives manager to their treasury staff.

Treasurers that decide to outsource their department's hedging function must understand their company's risks and the options available for mitigating them. Matt McLaughlin, president of consulting firm Midstream Partners LLC in Bedford, Texas, says treasury executives should ask themselves these key questions: "What are you trying to protect -- cash flow? [In] what manner? For what time period? When? What are you going to hedge it with? What will it cost?" Only after they have answered these questions should treasurers meet with investment banks to obtain competitive bids on hedging services.

FAS 133

Many companies with in-house hedging programs have seen big increases in their workload since 1998, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board issued FAS 133 ("Accounting for Derivative Instruments and Hedging Activities"). This standard is intended to remedy the abuses that dogged derivatives in the 1990s and to provide more visibility into hedging transactions.

While many in the industry agree there's a need for greater transparency, the recordkeeping requirements generated by the rule have created massive amounts of work for treasurers and corporate accoun-tants. The sheer volume of the standard -- it spans several hundred pages -- makes it confusing to follow and arduous to adhere to. "If you call three people, you'll get four opinions" about the rule's requirements, says David Scheidt, partner with Decision Analytics, an investment advisory firm in San Francisco.

An organization's accounting and auditing staffs typically have responsibility for valuing its hedging instruments and activities under FAS 133, but treasurers need a basic understanding of the rule. Otherwise, their hedges may fail to qualify for hedge accounting. That might mean that the gain or loss on the hedging instrument ends up being reported in a different time period from the one in which the gain or loss on the hedged item is reported, "fostering a higher degree of volatility than would be the case if the two effects were realized concurrently," according to Ira Kawaller, president of Kawaller & Co. LLC, a risk consultancy in Brooklyn, New York.

FAS 133 requires organizations to show that their hedging transactions are "effective" -- that is, they do in fact offset the risk they're intended to hedge. In general, the derivative should offset the exposure by at least 80 percent, says Steve Kuhl, vice president of risk solutions with London-based Travelex, a foreign exchange services provider. The portion of the derivative's gain or loss that covers the exposure is called its "effective portion." Any part of the instrument's gain or loss that fails to offset the exposure is its "ineffective portion."

FAS 133 permits three approaches to valuing derivatives. The first applies to fair value hedges -- that is, those designed to mitigate exposure to a change in the fair value of an asset or liability that's already on the organization's balance sheet. Companies must recognize the gain or loss on the hedging instrument in earnings in the same period in which they recognize the offsetting gain or loss on the hedged item.

The second valuation method applies to cash flow hedges -- derivatives intended to mitigate exposure to variation in the cash flows of a future transaction. This category includes, for example, some types of futures contracts intended to hedge against a rise in a commodity's price. At the end of the accounting period, the effective portion of the derivative's gain or loss is reported within other comprehensive income, and the ineffective portion is reported in earnings. When the hedged transaction occurs and affects earnings, the effective portion of the hedge is reclassified into earnings.

The third method covers hedges intended to mitigate risks arising from various transactions involving foreign currencies. The gain or loss on the derivative is reported in other comprehensive income. After that, the treatment varies, depending on the type of exposure the hedge is intended to protect against.

The Future of Hedging

Despite the complexities of FAS 133, companies are increasing their use of sophisticated hedging tools such as credit derivatives -- agreements that transfer credit risk from one party to the other for a fee. For example, if a manufacturer holds debt in a wholesaler, it may pay a counterparty to take on the risk that the wholesaler will default. During the first half of 2004, credit derivatives' notional amount -- the value of their underlying instruments -- grew 44 percent to $5.4 trillion worldwide, according to a survey by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association in New York City.

Down the road, treasurers may find themselves hedging against an even broader range of risks than they do now. "We're still in the beginning of hedging," says Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University and author of "The New Financial Order: Risk in the 21st Century" (Princeton University Press, 2003).

Shiller predicts that companies eventually will be able to hedge against fluctuations in home prices. This would be a boon to businesses whose performance is tied to the housing market, such as homebuilders and mortgage companies. He has been working for several years to introduce home-price hedging instruments to the markets, and he has registered one such derivative with the SEC.

Whatever the exposures they need to hedge or the instruments they decide to use, companies must keep a clear focus on the basics: managing risk, staying disciplined, and keeping their hedging transactions as simple and cost-effective as possible. "The key is a systematic program," says Southwest Airlines' Wright. "That means setting prices and targets that fit in your cost structure and then staying with it."