Tag: usps

U.S. Postal Service Fares Worse in Recession than Foreign Posts

A new paper from postal expert Michael Schuyler compares the financial performance of the U.S. Postal Service to foreign postal service providers. Not surprisingly, the USPS, which has lost over $25 billion since 2006 and ranks near the bottom of the Postal Index of Freedom, doesn’t fare too well.

From the paper:

[Universal Postal Union] data indicate that, in each year, the majority of posts in high-income jurisdictions were profitable. Declining mail demand was stressful, though: the share of posts reporting losses increased from less than one in ten in 2007 to more than one in three in 2010. Nevertheless, few posts lost money consistently: under 20% over the period 2008-2010 and under 10% over the period 2007-2008, which suggests most foreign posts reacted quickly and effectively to financial setbacks. The good news is that posts can adjust to change and remain financially viable. Unfortunately, USPS is among the posts with consistent losses. Further, UPU data show that, in each year, more than half the reporting posts in medium-income jurisdictions were profitable. Few spilled red ink year after year.

Schuyler says that he will explore the reasons for the USPS’s comparatively poor performance in a future paper, but notes that “A key finding will be that Congressional restrictions and pressure often deny the Postal Service the operational flexibility needed to manage its costs properly.” In a Cato essay, I discuss the problems with Congress’s micromanagement of the U.S. Postal Service and conclude that it should be placed on the path to privatization.

Another postal expert, Alan Robinson, notes Schuyler’s piece and offers additional commentary on the need for policymakers to figure out what to do with the flailing postal service. Should the USPS go back to being subsidized by taxpayers?  Or should the USPS remain a part of the federal government at all? Robinson concludes that “it is time for postal service stakeholders, and in particular its labor unions, to develop an acceptable path toward privatization.”

Postal Vision 2020

Postal Vision 2020 is a conference scheduled for June in Arlington, VA, that will discuss the U.S. Postal Service’s long-term prospects in our increasingly digitized world. Here’s how the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe frames the gathering:

As mail volume continues to plummet and more Americans use the Internet to pay bills and keep in touch, Google executives, social media experts and some of the most passionate tech evangelists are planning to meet in Crystal City in mid-June to sort out how to save and remake the nation’s mail delivery service.

That sounds like a good group for discussing ideas on how to “remake the nation’s mail delivery service” given that the USPS is the antithesis of companies like Google. Creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and competitive are words that one would associate with Google—not the government’s mail monopoly. However, should these folks be getting together to discuss saving the USPS? That notion strikes me as akin to having Henry Ford come up with ideas on saving the horse and buggy.

As I discuss in a Cato essay on the USPS, the socialist mail enterprise cannot survive in its current form—at least not without a reintroduction of taxpayer subsidies. The USPS’s revenue base has been irrevocably undermined by the growth in digital communications, and congressional micromanagement makes sufficient cost-cutting extremely difficult. Thus, I would argue that the goal should be to create a market for postal services rather than to “save” the USPS:

Policymakers resistant to reform often depict the USPS as a “national asset” that “binds the nation together.” But these days, it’s the Internet and our telecommunications networks that bind families and businesses together across the nation. It’s time to let go of the nostalgia for the USPS and bring America’s postal services into the 21st century with privatization, open competition, and entrepreneurial innovation.

Unfortunately, the sclerosis at the USPS is a reflection of the sclerosis in Congress. As Chris Edwards and I have repeatedly discussed with each other, it is incredibly difficult for Congress to think outside the box on policy. One reason is that because the federal government has become so massive, policymakers have little time to devote to big ideas like transforming the USPS. That, of course, assumes that policymakers are interested in such big ideas. For many members of Congress, interest in the USPS doesn’t go much further than franking privileges and naming post offices.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Taxpayers received a rare, albeit small and temporary, victory when a pork-laden omnibus bill died in the Senate. We’re now about to find out how serious Republicans are about cutting spending.
  • Chris Edwards looks at breastfeeding and argues that bigger isn’t better when it comes to subsidies.
  • “The nearest earthly approach to immortality is a bureau of the federal government.”
  • Former President George W. Bush defends his abysmal spending record in his book Decision Points. Upon further review, perhaps the book should be retitled Deception Points.
  • A new Cato essay discusses the problems of the U.S. Postal Service and concludes that taxpayers, consumers, and the broader economy would stand to gain with reforms to privatize the USPS and open mail delivery up to competition.

Postal Service Announces $8.5 Billion Loss

The U.S. Postal service has announced a net loss of $8.5 billion for fiscal 2010. Since 2006, the USPS has lost $20 billion, and the organization is close to maxing out its $15 billion line of credit with the U.S. Treasury. Although the USPS has achieved some cost savings, they haven’t been enough to overcome a large drop in revenue due to the recession and the greater use of electronic alternatives by the public.

The USPS is required to make substantial annual payments to pre-fund retiree health care benefits. Last year, Congress allowed the USPS to postpone $4 billion of its fiscal 2009 into the future. However, Congress did not provide similar relief on this year’s required payment of $5.5 billion.

Critics of the retiree health care pre-funding requirement argue that no other federal agencies or private companies face such obligations. The argument is largely irrelevant for two reasons. First, the federal government’s financial practices are nothing to emulate. Second, very few private sector workers even receive retiree health care benefits.

In 2008, only 17 percent of private sector workers were employed at a business that offered health benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees, down from 28 percent in 1997. The actual number of private sector workers receiving these benefits is even lower as not all employees employed at the 17 percent of businesses that offers retiree health benefits are eligible to receive them.

The retiree health care benefit pre-funding requirement has become a rallying cry for the postal unions, as any threat to USPS solvency is a threat to the excessive compensation and benefits they’ve been able to extract from the postal service for their membership over the years.

Policymakers should properly view the retiree health care benefit as a symbol of postal labor excess, which continues to weigh the USPS down like an anchor. Therefore, they should avoid allowing the USPS to further postpone these payments into the future, which could lead to a taxpayer bailout. Instead, policymakers should recognize that the USPS’s financial woes require bolder action: privatization.

Postmaster General Stepping Down

Postmaster General John Potter has announced that he is stepping down. The Washington Post speculates on the reason for Potter’s departure:

It is not immediately clear why Potter decided to step down, though USPS staffers and others in the postal community – a wide fraternity including the shipping industry, labor unions and large retailers – signaled recently that he was likely to go after another record year of financial losses and failing to earn greater management flexibilities from Congress.

When Potter testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in March on the USPS’s desire to drop Saturday delivery, I noted that his comments indicated the need to privatize the U.S. Postal Service.

In his testimony, Potter stated:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

Of course, Congress has shown virtually no interest in giving the USPS, which is bleeding red ink, the greater flexibility it needs. This makes me wonder if Potter will reach the same conclusion that his predecessor, William Henderson, reached following his departure from the USPS.

Three short months after Henderson stepped down as postmaster general in June 2001, he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post that called for the USPS to be privatized.

Henderson wrote:

But for all the ways in which the Postal Service already resembles a private company, it lacks the advantages of any other corporation, such as being able to turn on a dime when it comes to rate changes, perhaps raising prices at times of high demand and lowering prices to entice customers during traditionally slow times, which for the Postal Service means summer. Today, a price change requires the permission of the Postal Rate Commission – a yearlong process.

And unlike a private company, the Postal Service has a universal service obligation, meaning it must deliver everywhere, six days a week, at a regularly scheduled time, making the delivery even for a single piece of mail, which is not cost-effective. And it means delivering in the Grand Canyon and in rural Alaska and in high-risk neighborhoods and lots of other places where delivery is not cost-effective.

The trade-off is that the Postal Service gets monopoly protection; no private company is allowed to compete with it head to head by carrying letter mail or using the mailbox. It should give up that protection for the greater benefits of privatization.

Henderson’s conclusion still rings true almost ten years later:

I can’t believe that 25 years from now the Postal Service will still be owned by the federal government. But the point is that, as with any government asset, this one needs to be maximized. And that means we need to free ourselves from the usual discussion about controlling costs or keeping rates stable or mailing more, all of which is simply a form of denial about the real issue. The model itself is not going to work for the long haul: It must be changed.

Unfortunately, Congress is still in denial. In commenting on Potter’s departure, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) offered the vacuous statement that his successor “must strengthen the Postal Service by cutting costs, enticing more customers and putting this vital institution on a sound financial footing.” Instead, Sen. Collins and her colleagues need to recognize that the USPS model “is not going to work for the long haul” so long as politicians ultimately remain in charge.

Postal Service’s Financial Woes

The U.S. Postal Service is in a lurch after Congress wrapped up business until November without giving the USPS a break on a $5.5 billion retiree health benefits payment that’s due tomorrow. Combined with an expected loss in the billions of dollars, the USPS could run out of money in October.

In addition, the USPS’s regulator today rejected the USPS’s request for an exigent postal rate increase. The Postal Regulatory Commission acknowledged that the recession has led to a substantial decline in mail volume. However, the PRC rejected the request because the rate adjustments “represent an attempt to address long-term structural problems not caused by the recent recession.”

The PRC singled out “an overly ambitious requirement for the Postal Service to prefund its future retiree health benefit premiums.” The prefunding requirement stems from a 2006 law that sought to address unfunded obligations for retiree health benefits. Last year, Congress agreed to reduce the USPS’s 2009 payment by $4 billion in order to help it keep its head above water.

Congress did not provide such relief this year, which some members of Congress have inappropriately criticized as being a “taxpayer bailout.” However, allowing the USPS to defer its obligations only increases the possibility that future taxpayers could be on the hook. Therefore, policymakers who are critical of giving the USPS another break are correct when they state that the government mail monopoly needs to be substantially reformed.

The PRC’s rejection of the rate increase request points to the problem with the government trying to run a business. If UPS or FedEx had to ask a federal regulatory body for permission to raise prices for their services, it’s unlikely that either would survive.

As I’ve previously discussed, the USPS is currently trying to get Congress’s blessing to eliminate Saturday service. While it’s ridiculous that the American people are forced to use a government monopoly that wants to raise prices while simultaneously degrading services, having to get Congress’s approval to alter delivery schedules is a serious problem for a commercial operation.

Postal management has succeeded in cutting costs, but still lacks the necessary flexibility that a private firm would possess. For instance, if the USPS wants to close post offices, it has to jump through numerous regulatory and congressional hoops. Last year, for example, the USPS proposed consolidating 3,000 postal outlets, but following a congressional outcry, the number under consideration was reduced to a paltry 157.

While the USPS has been able to eliminate a substantial number of employees through attrition, the USPS’s predominantly unionized workforce continues to account for 80 percent its costs. When weighing a decision on postal union contracts, arbitrators are not allowed to take the USPS’s financial situation into consideration. In addition to extracting benefits that are generous even by federal employee standards, inflexible union contracts also make it difficult for the USPS to efficiently manage its workforce.

Beyond the nostalgic depictions of the USPS being a “national asset” that “binds the nation together” is the unglamorous fact that it provides a service just like millions of other commercial outfits. Electronic communication and other technological advances are making the USPS’s mail monopoly increasingly irrelevant. Instead of haggling over six-day mail delivery and retiree health benefit prefunding formulas, Congress should start focusing its attention on getting the government out of the mail business once and for all.

U.S. Mail Monopoly Wants Rate Hike

The long-term prospects for the U.S. Postal Service monopoly are bleak. To help stem the flow of red ink, the USPS intends to seek a rate increase. Only a government monopoly would try to raise prices when the demand for its services is plummeting. The rate increase will only push its already declining customer base to use cheaper, more efficient electronic alternatives.

The USPS is in need of drastic reform, but instead of looking at big picture, Congress is hung up on the USPS’s request to eliminate Saturday mail delivery service. In contrast, countries around the world are continuing to liberalize their postal markets by embracing competition and private sector involvement.

Britain is a good example.

In 1969, the British Post Office transformed from a government agency into a corporation, which would come to be known as Royal Mail. However, the company’s shares are owned by the government. In 2006, Royal Mail’s regulator removed its monopoly and opened British mail delivery to full competition, which the postal unions opposed.

Like their counterparts in the U.S., the British postal unions are a hindrance to effective and efficient postal management. With email and other technologies undermining traditional mail, neutering the inflexibility caused by unions is paramount for mail operations here and abroad.

According to the Daily Mail, the British government is now prepared to take the next step: privatization. In doing so, the government is considering transferring a portion of Royal Mail’s shares to its employees. Giving the employees ownership stakes would inhibit the unions’ ability to extract concessions that would negatively affect the company’s bottom line.

A popular argument against mail privatization in the U.S. is that an important service can’t be entrusted to self-interested capitalists concerned only with making a profit. But public officials are just as motivated by self-interest. The difference is that public officials aren’t subject to market forces, which compel private businesses to adapt and economize to survive.

For example, the third-ranking official at the USPS stepped down in May after it came to light that he awarded six-figure, no-bid contracts to former colleagues at various companies.

From the Washington Post:

A 64-page report by the Postal Service Office of Inspector General found that [Robert F.] Bernstock clashed with Postal Service lawyers over whether he could conduct outside business by using agency computers, e-mail and staff… Bernstock also used office telephones to conduct teleconferences and other meetings related to his private business holdings and also instructed staffers to conduct private work for him, investigators found.

The report details how Bernstock awarded non competitive contracts to five former business associates and a $1.5 million consultant deal with Goldman Sachs. He also violated company policy by negotiating a holiday bulk stamp sale agreement with Costco while owning $30,000 in company stock. The Postal Service requires officials owning more than $15,000 in a company’s stock to recuse themselves from any official dealings with the company.