For years, Southwest Airlines (LUV) was the exception to the rule, with the rule being that airlines were money-losers. But Thursday, Southwest reported its first quarterly loss in 17 years.

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For years, Southwest Airlines (LUV) was the exception to the rule, with the rule being that airlines were money-losers.

As big competitors filed for bankruptcy protection, Southwest kept churning out profits and even paid a dividend. A key reason for its success was its approach to fuel: It would lock in prices years in advance.

But Thursday, Southwest reported its first quarterly loss in 17 years. The culprit: the same hedging contracts that had been a boon as oil surged from around $25 a barrel in 2000 to $147 in July. Now, Southwest’s locked-in fuel prices look like they may exceed market prices, as oil dropped below $70 Thursday.

The company recorded $247 million in charges for the third quarter, mostly to write down the value of its hedging contracts.

It has contracts to cover more than 75 percent of 2009’s fuel consumption at oil prices of about $73.

New leaders

The leaders of the market over the past five to 10 years — real estate, commodities, emerging-market stocks — were built on the credit bubble, says Richard Bernstein, Merrill Lynch’s chief investment strategist.

Now that the bubble has popped, he thinks the new leaders could include consumer-staples stocks, health-care stocks and U.S. Treasurys.

No free lunch

There really is no such thing as a free lunch, and the North American Securities Administrators Association and AARP are warning seniors to be wary of invitations for free lunch investment seminars.

Four of five investors above age 60 have received at least one such invitation in the past three years, according to AARP.

The invites are usually pitched as investor education sessions and capped off with a nice lunch.

But investors sometimes find themselves pressured to buy unsuitable products during the meetings or at follow-up sessions.

The groups are asking investors to let them know if they’ve received such invitations by signing on to www.aarp.org/nofreelunch.

The Associated Press