A rate hike, a decrease, an extension of the temporary “exigent” increase, and even an increase and decrease a few months apart are all plausible 2015 scenarios for First Class, Standard, and Periodicals mailers. That uncertainty is a far cry from the past few years, when "market-dominant" postal rates inched up each January based on the rate of inflation.
The three-judge panel considering an appeal of the exigency case seems unlikely either to eliminate the rate hike or to make it permanent, according to Stephen Kearney, executive director of the Alliance for Nonprofit Mailers. But based on the judges’ comments and questions during recent oral arguments, his reading of the tea leaves foresees a decent chance the judges will remand the case to the Postal Regulatory Commission with orders to revise it.
Big risk to mailers
The main issue in the case is how much revenue USPS lost as a result of the recent recession, as opposed to revenue it would have lost anyway from increased usage of email, online billing, and other digital media.
However, the judges indicated that the PRC’s decision was unclear regarding how the Postal Service’s recession-related losses were calculated, Kearney wrote. And they questioned whether the PRC’s methodology fell short of counting all the losses.
"The judges likely will decide between two choices: to defer to the expert regulating agency and let the PRC order stand, or to remand the case back to the PRC and tell them to do a better job determining and implementing methods to quantify the revenue that the USPS lost as a result of the 2007-2009 recession.”
With the judges taking one to three months to issue their order and the PRC possibly needing additional time to reconsider the case, it could be well into next year before we know the outcome. And even an order upholding the PRC decision would not completely clear up what will happen to postal rates next year.
Mailers and postal officials are still arguing over how to decide when the $3.2 billion target has been reached. One issue, for example, is whether to count the surcharge on all Forever Stamps sold during the exigency period or only on those that are actually used.
USPS officials could implement the usual inflation-based price increase – probably in the 1%-2% range -- in January. But that could mean a 4.3% decrease a few months later if the exigent surcharge expires as currently planned.
Postal officials have indicated they might postpone a January rate increase in hopes of building up enough rate-increase authority to keep rates level when the surcharge expires. However, if the PRC order is upheld and inflation continues at a tortoise’s pace, USPS's rate authority would probably fall a couple of percentage points short, leading to price decreases.
But remember that, in Washington, “temporary” measures to increase government revenue have a way of becoming permanent. For mailers, there’s a danger that Congress will let the Postal Service keep the extra surcharge in place to keep the agency solvent, to preserve Saturday delivery, to stop some postal facilities from closing, or to finance new delivery vehicles.