For decades now, companies have been hedging, especially those that are in the commodities business or depend heavily on commodities. But until recently, it was hard for outsiders to understand how companies used contracts. But in 2008, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s Rule 161 required public companies to classify derivatives in their filings as either hedging vehicles or non-hedge derivatives. A team of academic accountants recently examined the filings of 87 oil and gas companies and found a remarkable amount of their hedging was actually economic, or speculative, in nature. According to their paper, “More than six out of every ten firms studied actually use the instruments for purposes other than managing risks.”
Swaminathan Sridharan, one of the study's authors and a professor of accounting at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, was surprised by the finding. “Some 62% of hedges in the oil and gas industry don’t qualify for hedge accounting.
The market performance of the companies suggests such practices don’t fool investors. “We find the market penalizes those companies that use non-hedge-designated derivatives,” Sridharan says.
At least one accounting expert questions the study’s conclusions. “I suspect there is some speculative use of derivatives going on here, but I think the reason for most of the non-hedge accounting is that companies simply get sick of trying to comply with Rule 161,” says Ira Kawaller, principal at Kawaller & Co.