'Cause I Said So…

A Change of Vision Needed At The USPS

Posted in Bureaucracy, Business, Finance, Free Markets, Government, Regulation by kevinsoberg on August 9, 2011

Once again, we’re hearing about problems at the United States Postal Service. The Postal Service is still having difficulty staying profitable delivering the mail. The majority of items delivered by the service has changed over its history from individual letters, to bills, to bulk mail advertising. However, the change in the Post Service’s customers has not been reflected in the way the Service operates.

There has been talk of ending Saturday home delivery of mail. It would be an immediate admission to what is no longer possible, but it does not go near far enough. It does not sufficiently increase efficiencies. It is merely a stop-gap measure to stem the bleeding associated with the failed current business model. What is really needed is a change in vision. What will the Postal Service of tomorrow be? Will it be a shrinking shade of its former self, or will it be a lean efficient money-making machine?

Any company operating in the private sector knows it must meet the needs of its customers, or risk going out of business. So, private companies continually update their business models to meet the changing needs of their customers. The USPS has not done this. It has lost sight of who its customers are and what they need. It no longer has a cogent business model.

Now, the US Postal Service already operates as two separate businesses with differing modes of operation. The Postal Service everyone thinks of is the traditional post office, with its service of General Delivery of letters and packages to all addresses in the country. The other, more recent, business done by the Postal Service is Express Delivery, the high-speed delivery of letters and packages. Most people don’t realize these two businesses operate simultaneously, but quite differently.

The business of General Delivery is a constitutionally mandated function of the federal government. This function was meant to guarantee communication across all of the states from within and without the US. To affect this, the Postal Service gives regular service, delivery and pick-up, to all US addresses, and charges rates which subsidize the costs of less profitable areas of operation. Even those areas with low populations have equal access to this form of communication, according to its governmental function. This service is operated as a virtual monopoly.

The Express Delivery business operated by the USPS has a completely different business model. Instead of offering daily service to all US addresses, service is strictly scheduled according to the need for deliveries. Pick-up service is by appointment or according to schedule from specified locations. The rates charged may be based on the cost of the individual service, though the USPS does advertise flat rates based upon the speed of service. It operates in a highly competitive field, with companies such as FedEx and UPS.

Obvious differences aside, the main difference between these business models is who is seen as the customer. Express Delivery correctly perceives the senders, those charged the fees, as the customers, while General Delivery incorrectly sees the receivers, those at the addresses, as the customers. How else could they justify daily service, regardless of need, to every address? Would you return each day to a customer making little or no use of your service, or would you instead focus on those paying for your service?

So, the obvious solution to General Delivery’s unprofitability is to end daily service to every address.

Instead of seeing the physical address visited each day as the customer, the service should focus on the people paying for delivery. The vast majority of mail is generated by companies and organizations sending large quantities of bills and advertising. They should be the daily focus of the Service’s attention. Luckily, those generating the majority of mail already have service based upon volume, either by scheduling pick-up or by dropping off their mail.

The service of mail pick-up and delivery to all other US addresses should remain regularized, but should be reduced to three times per week. The number of mail carriers would be reduced by almost half (sorry, guys). The miles driven each day would be reduced by half (without need of green technology). This one simple change would almost double the efficiency of the remaining carriers.

The actual customers of the service, those paying, could still receive daily service, while homes would still be serviced regularly. It would reduce how often people had to check their mail. The biggest inconvenience would be a one day delay in delivery of an item having no guaranteed delivery date. Those individuals who demand daily delivery of their mail may purchase Post Office Boxes for the privilege.

In the old days, it mattered if you received your mail on a given day, like the 1st or 15th of the month. Today, accounts are deposited electronically. All you may receive in the mail is a statement. If you pay your bills by mail upon receipt, you are unaffected. If you wait until the last-minute to pay, do it electronically or in person. If you need a letter delivered in town tomorrow, send it overnight or by courier.

The greater efficiencies gained by the reduction in unnecessary deliveries and its concurrent staffing will reduce the cost of General Delivery. The previously experienced cycles of increased postal rates followed by reduced traffic will end. The costs associated with an ever-growing population making ever less use of the current home pick-up service of mail will be lowered. It will allow the public to continue enjoying the regular home delivery of mail, subsidized by the Postal Service’s real customers.

The Democratization of Risk

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Finance, Government, Government Debt, Liberty, Morality, Politicians, Regulation by kevinsoberg on June 25, 2010

I was up at my regular time the other morning reading my news and blog sites, and doing a bit of tweeting. A tweet by Jonathan Hoenig (@JonathanHoenig) directed me to his then latest post, When in Doubt about a Stock, Stay Out (http://bit.ly/bYw1uN). He gives good, common sense advice on investing in the market. Thing is, it got me thinking, which is never good…

Was there ever a time when people dealt with the foreseeable negative results of their own actions, or inactions? It sure as Hell doesn’t seem to be the way of the world, anymore. People no longer seem willing to be at fault for anything they do or for the decisions they make. As a case in point, let’s look at the financial markets…

Over the last couple of decades, greater numbers of people have entered the markets. Now, this is of great benefit to us all. We need the middles classes to be an investor class. The markets are helped by an increase in capital available to corporations allowing them to more cheaply tap needed resources. Additionally, this lessens the burden to employers and to government, which have historically been on the hook for providing retirement income to seniors.

Unfortunately, two things have happened to negate the benefits of this expansion of the investor class. The first is the way business and investment news is reported. The second is increased government involvement in the markets. Both have had their own deleterious effects on the markets and on “investors”.

In the old days of the thirty-minute network news program, most people received their financial information in a fifteen second blurb reporting on the ups or downs of the NYSE or on the movement of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. For more in-depth information, the average person would go to their local paper for a closing snapshot of the markets movement from the preceding day. If there was an unusually interesting day in the markets, there would be a few articles in the Business Section. The hard-core investor and the financial types could always go to the news stand for the Wall Street Journal or the Investors Business Daily, but these were specialty publications as far as most people were concerned.

This hands-off, multi-layered approach to financial reporting all ended in the late 1980’s. Introduced not only were the 24-hour cable news networks, but close on their heels came their siblings, the Business and Finance channels. With the advent of these networks, came the increased presence of financial reporters, personalities, and gurus. Financial reporting became more and more about chasing the new “hot” stock pick or about setting the new record high.

“Live from the floor” footage of the NYSE, the NASDAQ or the CBE told the riveting tales of the daily ups and downs of the markets. Personalities were trotted out to pinpoint the under-valuation or the unexpected movements of a particular company’s stock. IPO’s and LBO’s were the order of the day. The markets were going gangbusters. Everything was going up and up… until it all went south.

No one saw it coming. Except they did. They just didn’t talk much about it. It didn’t fit the narrative they were telling or the product they were selling. “Irrational exuberance” was the order of the day. All of the danger signs were there, but few wanted to see them or at least admit it if they did.

I’m not just Monday (or more appropriately, Friday) morning quarterbacking this one. I cashed out of the market a year in advance of the crash. When I passed this advice on to others, I was called crazy. “You wouldn’t believe how much I made last month.” These were the same people who asked me why I didn’t warn them, after their stock holdings lost over half of its value.

In the wake of the busting of the “Tech Bubble”, yet more “reforms” were made to the U.S. financial system, as if that was what was needed. God forbid any one look at the decisions “investors” made during the “boom.” Weren’t there already regulations requiring disclosures to the SEC? Wasn’t insider trading already illegal? Didn’t each company have to prepare a carefully created prospectus for potential investors? No, there must be some grand conspiracy to defraud people of their hard-earned money. Really? Across the entire stock market?

How could that be? Wasn’t there already a virtual “alphabet soup” of financial regulators? Yeah, there was. Our financial markets have been heavily regulated since the Great Depression. There were no inherent problems or major gaps in regulation in the financial markets. In very few cases were there any findings of malfeasance or fraud on the part of corporate leaders. Yes, many people lost a lot of money, but, for the most part, only due to their own greed. That’s right, I said it.

“How dare you?” Yeah, I can hear it from here. I dare say it because it’s true. Greed IS NOT profiting from hard work or careful investing. Greed IS trying to get something for nothing. Those who chase financial market “bubbles” are not investors. They are gamblers. You want to bet your retirement or your kid’s college fund on a roll of the dice? Take it to the Indian Reservation. Stay out of the market.

“What about those poor Enron employees who lost everything?” Too bad. The first rule of investing is “diversify risk”. Risk diversification means NOT putting all of your eggs in one basket, which is exactly what they did. If you work for a company, that’s one big egg. If your company has a retirement plan, either defined benefit or defined contribution, that’s another big egg. Do you have: an Employee Stock Option Plan, a 401K, an IRA, other personal investments? Egg, egg, egg, egg. If you put all that money (and risk) in one place, guess what happens when there is a downturn? Exactly…

Instead of placing the blame for bad “investment” decisions squarely where it rests, which is on those responsible for their own portfolios, what do politicians do? Pander. Time after time, we have to hear the moaning on Capitol Hill about the “poor little guy” who was “snookered” out of his life’s savings. Who made him put all of his money in one “investment”? What’s next? Are we going down to the riverboats to feel pity for those who put all that they have on “Black”, “Red”, or “00”? Are we going to offer them a bailout or sue the casino? I call “Bullshit!”

I’m not just saying this about individuals. As far as I’m concerned this goes for companies, unions, governments… whatever. If you’re a corporate “leader” who signs an unrealistic labor contract, then you, your employees and your investors must deal with the consequences. If you’re a union “leader” who thinks he can bleed a business or industry dry, then don’t be surprised when it dies of anemia. If you’re a government “leader” who “kowtows” to public employees in hope of securing re-election, then you must make the hard decisions when economic difficulties arise and you have budgetary shortfalls.

For too long people have been trying to take the easy way to “success”, however they may define it. They have loaded up on risk in any number of ways. When the ax finally falls, as it most assuredly will, they go running for help. To whom do they run? Us, as always. They come running with their hands out asking to be made whole for the losses they have incurred. Why wouldn’t they? They have learned we’ll open up our wallets and paychecks for every sob story told.

Most of us were taught as children that we could only succeed if we made the right choices in life. We were taught to work hard, study, save, and spend wisely. Others have been taught to do the opposite, if not directly, then by example. Too many people (and they include businessmen & politicians, manager & workers, taxpayers & tax spenders) have learned that they can behave however they want regardless of risk, and the cost will be borne by everyone BUT themselves. They have learned that they can democratize risk, and we have allowed it.

The end result of decades of bad decision-making being paid for by innocent third parties is ever more bad decisions and ever more payouts. Where are we today? Public and private debt is at all-time record highs. The value of our total national government obligations is close to 90% of our GDP, our national income. We have hit a wall. It’s time for people to learn that if they fail because of bad choices, we won’t be there to catch them anymore. We just cannot afford it.

Love of Markets Not Always Love of Big Business

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Free Markets, Free Trade, Government, Leftism, Morality, Politicians, Politics by kevinsoberg on March 27, 2010

It is widely purported, by those on the Left and fellow-travelers in the major media, that when the “free market” and “capitalism” are defended, “big business” is actually being discussed. This is not necessarily the case. Most would expect me to say emphatically that it is not the case, but I believe in telling the truth. Like other words and phrases, the “free market”, “capitalism” and “big business” have had their meaning distorted. There are those more interested in furthering their own aims than they are the truth. In this case, these deceivers fall into two groups: those opposed to free markets, and those opposed to capitalism.

Many on the Right tend use “free markets” and “capitalism” interchangeably because one is thought to be essential for the other. They are wrong to do so. Capitalism is a system that primarily uses the “profit motive” to distribute goods and services throughout an economy. The idea of the “free market” is the belief that an individual has the right to conduct trade with any other individual without government interference. Now there are other economic systems which allow profits, but only capitalism can truly be married to “free markets.” However, capitalism can exist without “free markets.”

All economic systems produce goods and services. People must be fed, sheltered and clothed. These can be done either by individuals or by collective enterprises. The bigger the economy and the more complex the products produced, the larger these enterprises must become. Economies of scale and concentration of expertise are required for large-scale enterprises to supply those things necessary for a growing, progressing human population, regardless of system. In most economic systems these enterprises are called “big businesses“.

Now, who are those opposed to free markets? You may be surprised to find some of the biggest opponents are businesses. Seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? How can any business be against an open market? Well, the purpose of any business is to maximize shareholder value. If a business can do this by restricting competition, then that is what it will do, if possible. The managers of a business are not ideological, their priority is profit maximization. People in business believe in the profit motive; therefore, capitalism; just not necessarily the free market.

Another group opposed to free markets is politicians. Politicians in all parties seek ways to get, hold and expand their power. One method for this is to restrict markets. These restrictions are alterable in any number of ways and their expansion or adjustments are opportunities for influence peddling to interested persons. All those affected by the restrictions, positively or negatively, have a reason to seek the favor of politicians. These politicians can get campaign donations, under-the-table deals, promises of future jobs, etc. and most important to them, their ass kissed.

Politicians live to have people need them so that they can exert power over them. “Big Business” is the perfect foil for the politician. These businesses can be extorted for favors while simultaneously used as scapegoats for all that is wrong with the economy (national or local), with employment, with financial markets, with health care, with transportation, with energy policy, with the environment, etc. This behavior leads to further attempts by these businesses to influence the politician, sometimes preemptively, against stop targeting them.

Microsoft is the perfect example of this phenomenon. In 1990s, Microsoft had the vast majority of the PC operating system software market, but had almost no presence in Washington, DC. However, its competitors began spending money on lobbying efforts in DC in an attempt to get the government to turn its attention to this financial giant. As a result, Microsoft was targeted by the US government for anti-trust violations. In addition to having their product market restricted, Microsoft began spending vast sums on lobbyist and now has a large, permanent presence in DC to prevent future attacks on its business. The only winners were the politicians and their campaign contributors.

Another example is Altria (formerly Phillip Morris Companies Inc), the owner of the tobacco company Phillip Morris USA (PM), which manufactures the Marlboro brand of cigarettes. Marlboro is the largest selling brand of cigarettes in the US, resulting in PM being the biggest tobacco company. In the ‘90s PM began lobbying the US government for the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to take control of the regulation of the tobacco industry. Tobacco and alcohol manufacturers were purposely excluded from the Pure Food and Drug Act (1908) which established the FDA. PM wanted the FDA to regulate tobacco, because it knew the resulting limitations on product marketing would help prevent competitors from eating into their market share and boost their profits. PM spent $101 million on lobbying from 1998 to 2004. President Obama signed the law changing regulatory authority in 2009. Once again, the winners were politicians and their contributors.

Those who believe in Free Market Capitalism have neither a love nor hate for “big business”. We have a love for freedom and for the consumer. Businesses exist to produce things consumers want at a profit. The consumers are protected by the competition of an open market, which prevents any one company from permanently monopolizing that market. Government should act as a disinterested third-party. It should police the market only for anti-competitive business practices resulting in actual damages to consumers. It should not prop up inferior competitors, or target companies whose only crime is being successful. Unnecessary government interference has a detrimental effect on the market and the consumers.

Finally, there are people on the Left who do not believe Capitalism is a “moral” economic system. They protest against the meetings of the World Trade Organization and G-10. They hope to turn public opinion against the system by “exposing” the worst abuses of “big business”. They have every right to do so, and, inadvertently, their exposes can actually strengthen the market. Most are too ignorant to realize free market capitalism is premised upon “perfect knowledge” and the more we learn of how some companies operate the better for the market. So, keep it up guys. Just tell the complete truth more often. OK?