Monday, January 1, 2018

Trump Is Wrong, Mostly, About Amazon and USPS

Low rates don't mean unfair rates. But do Amazon deliveries create hidden costs for the USPS?

President Trump was off base Friday when he implied that Amazon has a sweetheart deal with the U.S. Postal Service.

But for reasons unrelated to Trump's' charges, it may be time for the USPS to rethink the prices it charges Amazon and perhaps for all package deliveries. In fact, there’s evidence the Postal Service is already doing that.

While containing no outright falsehoods, Trump’s tweet is a mix of truth and debatable claims.

Let’s take apart his claims:

• The USPS is “losing many billions of dollars a year”: Officially, that’s true, but only because the Postal Service is indirectly subsidizing the federal government via prepaid retiree health benefits and by paying more than its share of combined federal/USPS pension costs. Absent those accounting gimmicks, the Postal Service has operated at about breakeven the past few years.

• The USPS “is charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages”: True, but it's a non-issue. The USPS is generally able to charges the lowest rates for residential parcel deliveries it's the low-cost provider.

• “Making Amazon richer”: The Postal Service’s moves to gain a larger share of the residential package market have definitely benefited Amazon – and plenty of others who ship packages. Competition tends to do that. It's called capitalism.

• The Amazon deal is making the USPS “dumber.” Not likely. The USPS can learn from Amazon’s sophisticated approach to logistics.

• The Amazon deal is making the USPS “poorer.” Not according to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which vets package-delivery rates, including those negotiated privately by the likes of Amazon, to ensure they are profitable for the Postal Service.

Trump isn’t the first to question the low postage rates Amazon pays. Various commentators, special-interest groups, and others have raised the issue from time to time.

Challenges to the Amazon deal fall into three categories: the “sweetheart deal” argument, the “unfair competition” argument, and our own Dead Tree Edition observations.

The “sweetheart deal” argument
Those who claim Amazon negotiated too sweet a deal with the Postal Service naively point to estimates that its postage rates are well below those paid by mom-and-pop shippers. A Wall Street Journal op-ed written by the head of “a money-management firm that owns FedEx common stock” (Hmm, any bias there?) typifies the muddled thinking:

“The U.S. Postal Service delivers the company’s boxes well below its own costs,” wrote Josh Sandbulte, who estimated that the USPS handles about two-thirds of Amazon’s U.S. deliveries. “Select high-volume shippers are able to drop off presorted packages at the local Postal Service depot for “last mile” delivery at cut-rate prices. With high volumes and warehouses near the local depots, Amazon enjoys low rates unavailable to its competitors.”

In other words, Amazon goes to great expense to minimize the USPS’s costs of delivering Amazon packages; in return, Amazon pays lower postage rates. Such “worksharing” discounts are a standard, and quite logical, part of most postage rates: The more you do to reduce the Postal Service’s costs – via sorting, dropshipping, efficient packaging, etc. – the lower your postage bill.

Amazon presented the chart below to the PRC early this year in defense of its low rates, saying it “has established a transportation and distribution network of more than 25 sort centers and more than 70 fulfillment center warehouses. This network enables Amazon to inject parcels at Postal Service Destination Delivery Units (“DDUs”) already presorted for delivery to the customer.”

“This arrangement," Amazon says, benefits the Postal Service by letting it make more efficient use of its delivery facilities, equipment and personnel while avoiding the costs of building additional capacity in the Postal Service’s upstream network.”

The “unfair competition” argument

FedEx itself, along with fellow USPS competitor United Parcel Service, has a more sophisticated argument – that parcel shippers aren’t paying their fair share of the Postal Service’s costs.

Imagine that a letter carrier delivers four pieces of mail and one Amazon package to a particular address. The “fair-share” camp says that at least 20% of the labor, fuel, and other costs required to make that delivery should be assigned to the package.

But the USPS only looks at the incremental costs of delivering packages and other “competitive” products. For example, the labor and fuel required to drive to the mailbox are not factored into the cost of (or price for) delivering the package because those costs would exist even if the carrier were only delivering the letters.

The result, say USPS’s competitors, is that the Postal Service undercharges package shippers while overcharging those who send letters and other traditional mail. But the PRC sides with the USPS.

Dead Tree Edition's observations
The USPS-PRC approach to pricing isn’t just consistent with the law, it's good business practice.When evaluating a product, the question is whether the organization would be more profitable without the product than with it. That means ignoring any costs that would remain if the product were discontinued.

But the USPS-PRC approach has a couple of shortcomings.

Because its tiny 30-year-old delivery vehicles were designed primarily with letters in mind, the Postal Service is increasingly relying on parcels-only delivery routes to cope with the e-commerce boom. That’s driving up the average cost of delivering a parcel.

But setting postal rates is a bit like driving while looking in a rear-view mirror: Projections are based on elaborate analyses of historical data – in this case of a time when most parcel deliveries could easily be piggybacked onto regular mail routes. It’s also unlikely that the Postal Service’s current cost models fully reflect the increasing amount of real estate devoted to sorting and handling parcels.

And it’s well-nigh impossible for those models to factor in opportunity costs.

The USPS’s deals with Amazon have been based on the premise that most of the additional deliveries would be done by city carrier assistants (CCAs), whose compensation is less than half that of career letter carriers. The labor contract with the National Association of Letter Carriers caps the number of CCAs the USPS can hire, while allowing additional ones to be brought on for non-traditional ventures like the Amazon deals.

But, contrary to its expectations, the Postal Service has struggled to hire, train, and retain the full complement of CCAs. The parcel boom has also meant plenty of work – and overtime -- for CCAs and career carriers alike.

Under these conditions, the Amazon deal is sucking up a limited resource: inexpensive (about $17/hour) CCA labor. That deprives the Postal Service of the cost-reducing opportunity to use more straight-time CCA hours on non-Amazon deliveries.

Here’s a hint that the Postal Service may be wising up to such hidden costs: A small experimental venture that had CCAs delivering groceries for Amazon Fresh apparently collapsed recently. One reason, Recode reports, is that “Amazon balked at new delivery rates USPS was going to charge the company.”
"The bottom line is whether the USPS would be better off without Amazon than with it."
Still, Amazon pays the U.S. Postal Service billions of dollars annually – probably well over 10% of the agency’s total revenue. The bottom-line question is whether the Postal Service would be better off without the current Amazon deal than with it. The answer is neither the clear "no" that Trump and other critics would have us believe, nor the clear "yes" indicated by the PRC’s rulings.

In fact, I doubt anyone can provide a definitive answer.

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