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January 29, 2013

A Penny Saved is…Still Not Enough to Save the Post Office

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by Ron Daly 

Well, my plan to invest my retirement in forever stamps is paying off nicely.

Yesterday, the United States Postal Service increased the price of a stamp to $0.46. The rest of the postage prices jumped, too, but it's good news if you've got a bunch of forever stamps sitting around - they're gaining value all the time. 

The USPS has the right idea - postage prices should increase, considering the fact that letter volume's dropping the way it is (heading to about 150 billion pieces of mail - seems like a lot, but that's actually waaaay down). And, lest we forget, the post office is bleeding about $25 million every day according to the postmaster general. Some estimate they'll be out of money and out of service in the next six months to a year. Will a penny more per mailed letter really save them? No, but it's better than standing still. 

Wait a minute, Mr. Postman...

In 2006, the USPS turned a $900 million dollar profit - yeah, you read that correctly. A profit. Hard to believe about an organization that in 2012 lost $16 billion. Where's all that money going? Is the sharp drop-off in mail volume to blame? Is it all the Postal Service's fault?

No, it isn't. As with just about everything these days, you can blame Congress. 

See, 2006 was the year Congress passed a law requiring the USPS to fund pensions through the next 75 years. I can tell you, this is unheard of in business - nobody's shoring up that much cash to pay employee pensions. Nobody. It's suspected that $11 billion of that $16 billion lost in 2012 went to pension funds and labor. Add to that the fact that mail volume's dropping off and Congress has been inflexible on the idea of killing off Saturday delivery (a measure that could save the USPS about $2 billion annually), the USPS has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

So, what's the solution?

There are plenty of people nationwide who are eager to see the post office saved for future generations. This Esquire article goes in-depth about the problem's the USPS is facing and how a complete dissolution of the entire postal service would be a blow to the American way of life. There's a new petition on WhiteHouse.gov to "save the postal service". But how to save it?

One possible way out? Undo the curse of the pre-funded pensions and let the money in that fund be dispersed to the post offices and carriers that need it. But that would require Congress's action in undoing what's been done. 

Congress? Action? Hmm...what's our other option? 

Oh, right...a taxpayer funded bailout. Taxpayers would fund the pension program and alleviate the post office's responsibilities. 

Feel like bailing out one more industry that can't handle the future? 

And speaking of the future...how bad off would USPS retirees be without the pensions in question? 

Not that bad, says Jen Wieczner at SmartMoney

Despite the Postal Service's debt, its retiree benefit coffers are beyond full. Its pension funds are more than 100% funded, compared with 42% for all federal pension funds and 80% for the average Fortune 1000 pension plan. That "astonishingly high figure," according to Williams, amounts to a "war chest" of resources that will take care of older workers for decades to come. 

So either way, it comes down to Congress. Keep your eyes peeled, there'll be a brouhaha on the Hill about all this, likely before the summer rolls in.

And in the meantime, what should you be doing, oh weary credit union marketer? 

The Broken Window Problem

You might be thinking, "yes, let's save the post office - we'll send out more mail!" It turns into the old Broken Window Fallacy - someone breaks a window, the window gets replaced for a certain cost, everyone starts a window repair business, and then all of a sudden...no broken windows. So what do people do? Start breaking windows to save the window repair businesses. 

It's wasteful and stupid. And so is trying to inject more mail into a beleaguered system because you feel bad about its shortcomings. When Western Union announced it would stop delivering telegrams, where did all the protests occur? Where was the petition saying an outmoded form of communication must be saved? 

I like my postal carrier. I like getting a letter every so often. But I don't walk around with 400 pieces of mail in my pocket every day. I do walk around with a small, touch screen computer that manages all my email, sends me text messages and even places phone calls. 

Now, let's look at credit unions. In a time when many CUs are closing their doors or getting merged, who can afford to overlook the significant cost savings that come from online banking, online account opening, eStatements, electronic bill pay, debit cards...the list goes on, but I get the sense I'm not telling you anything new. 

We started  DigitalMailer 13 years ago because we knew that the two things credit unions really want (operationally speaking) are to A) generate revenue and B) cut costs. You can't do that when you're chained to the giant rock of printing and postage. We've delivered close to 60 million eStatements over the years. At $0.46 saved per eStatement, that's $27.6 million that would go out of the pocket of the Post Office (sorry we're not sorry) and back into the pockets of the credit unions we serve. We've created products like One-Click Enrollment to help make that transition easy, and most eStatement converts never look back. Promoting education and organization to members through online account and document management is part of the greater mission of credit unions.

Heed that call and stop worrying about whether or not the Postal Service can survive. It'll take a fight with Congress, but it can be done. And even when it is, don't be surprised if the USPS still cries foul at the drop in volume. They had the chance to latch on to emerging technologies and ignored it, favoring the old ways instead of a new path to profitability. They didn't take it. 

Time for you to consider that new path for yourself. We're famous for avoiding bailouts. 

As for me, I hope postage jumps to $1 - my all-forever-stamp portfolio is looking better and better.

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