Hedge net economic exposure
Too many hedging programs target the nominal risks of “siloed” businesses rather than a company’s net economic exposure—aggregated risk across the broad enterprise that also includes the indirect risks. This siloed approach is a problem, especially in large multibusiness organizations: managers of business units or divisions focus on their own risks without considering risks and hedging activities elsewhere in the company.
At a large international industrial company, for example, one business unit decided to hedge its foreign-exchange exposure from the sale of $700 million in goods to Brazil, inadvertently increasing the company’s net exposure to fluctuations in foreign currency. The unit’s managers hadn’t known that a second business unit was at the same time sourcing about $500 million of goods from Brazil, so instead of the company’s natural $200 million exposure, it ended up with a net exposure of $500 million—a significant risk for this company.
Elsewhere, the purchasing manager of a large chemical company used the financial markets to hedge its direct natural-gas costs—which amounted to more than $1 billion, or half of its input costs for the year. However, the company’s sales contracts were structured so that natural-gas prices were treated as a pass-through (for example, with an index-based pricing mechanism). The company’s natural position had little exposure to gas price movements, since price fluctuations were adjusted, or hedged, in its sales contracts. By adding a financial hedge to its input costs, the company was significantly increasing its exposure to natural-gas prices—essentially locking in an input price for gas with a floating sales price. If the oversight had gone unnoticed, a 20 percent decrease in gas prices would have wiped out all of the company’s projected earnings.
Keep in mind that net economic exposure includes indirect risks, which in some cases account for the bulk of a company’s total risk exposure. Companies can be exposed to indirect risks through both business practices (such as contracting terms with customers) and market factors (for instance, changes in the competitive environment). When a snowmobile manufacturer in Canada hedged the foreign-exchange exposure of its supply costs, denominated in Canadian dollars, for example, the hedge successfully protected it from cost increases when the Canadian dollar rose against the US dollar. However, the costs for the company’s US competitors were in depreciating US dollars. The snowmobile maker’s net economic exposure to a rising Canadian dollar therefore came not just from higher manufacturing costs but also from lower sales as Canadian customers rushed to buy cheaper snowmobiles from competitors in the United States.
In some cases, a company’s net economic exposure can be lower than its apparent nominal exposure. An oil refinery, for example, faces a large nominal exposure to crude-oil costs, which make up about 85 percent of the cost of its output, such as gasoline and diesel. Yet the company’s true economic exposure is much lower, since the refineries across the industry largely face the same crude price exposure (with some minor differences for configuration) and they typically pass changes in crude oil prices through to customers. So in practice, each refinery’s true economic exposure is a small fraction of its nominal exposure because of the industry structure and competitive environment.
To identify a company’s true economic exposure, start by determining the natural offsets across businesses to ensure that hedging activities don’t actually increase it. Typically, the critical task of identifying and aggregating exposure to risk on a company-wide basis involves compiling a global risk “book” (similar to those used by financial and other trading institutions) to see the big picture—the different elements of risk—on a consistent basis.