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Airline industry hoping to tame oil speculators

ATLANTA — Although planes take off and land round-the-clock at this city'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 Inc., he must navigate volatile fuel costs, which he thinks that oil speculators are driving to punishing levels.

During peacetime, Delta is the world's largest consumer of jet fuel, edging out the Department of Defense. 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 rather than from any need to consume fuel.

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

Today, that ratio has been flipped on its head: Financial players with no intent of ever using a barrel of oil make up 70 percent 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.

"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.

Rising oil prices are out of sync with a weak U.S. economic recovery. Delta and its competitors, all job creators, struggle to remain profitable. The price of the jet fuel they need to fly Americans to and from destinations is as volatile as the prices motorists pay at the local gas pump.

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.

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.

As a consequence, airlines and motorists alike suffer.

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