Delta’s Refinery Gambit: It’s Not About Volatility

Delta Airlines’ deal to buy the Trainer Refinery owned by Phillips66 was formally announced yesterday. The 8K filing is available here and includes the press release and slide show. Until yesterday the deal was being talked about as a way to hedge the fluctuating price of jet fuel oil. But the announcement makes clear that the objective is something different entirely: battling the rising jet fuel crack spread in the Northeast U.S. where Delta has critical hubs at LaGuardia and JFK.

This is one of the key charts from Delta’s slideshow highlighting the rising crack spread Delta has paid over the last three years.

The possibility of further closures of East Coast refineries threatened to drive the local spread even higher, Delta claimed. Delta believes that by investing in the refinery, including $100 million in investments to shift even more of its production to jet fuel, it will be able to source its fuel cheaper and able to bargain better for the balance of its needs.

The title of Delta’s presentation reads “Addressing Rising Jet Fuel Risk”, and it does contain talk about how “jet fuel crack spreads cannot be cost-effectively hedged”, among other language evocative of risk management and hedging. But it would be a mistake to try and understand this as a hedge in the traditional sense. Delta isn’t trying to limit volatility: at least not volatility around a mean. It’s trying to put direct pressure on the mean level of the jet fuel spread. That’s a different thing entirely.

This is an attempt to gain a strategic advantage in the airline industry. Will it payoff? Apparently yes, according to Delta’s projections. Even if the Brent-WTI spread reverses and becomes negative and many East Coast refineries reopen for business, that will likely take longer than one year, as much time as Delta believes is needed to payback the investment. Time will tell.

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Update: Liam Denning at the WSJ provides some useful statistics:

The Justice Department considers a market with a Herfindahl-Hirschman Index score above 2,500 to be “highly concentrated.” In 2010, the East Coast refining market’s score hit 3,255, against a nationwide one of 680, according to the Federal Trade Commission. If Pennsylvania’s Trainer facility had stayed idle rather than be bought by Delta, the score would likely have surpassed 4,000, according to the American Antitrust Institute.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] – Delta’s Refinery Gambit: It’s Not About Volatility […]

  2. By The Closer | Bulletin on May 1, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    […] Why Delta wasn’t hedging jet fuel widespread risk when it bought that […]

  3. By FT Alphaville » The Closer on May 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    […] Why Delta wasn’t hedging jet fuel spread risk when it bought that […]

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