• on Mar 10th, 2014 in Finances: Cost & Revenue | 4 comments

    Benjamins, dough, cabbage, coin, greenbacks. Most of us could rattle off a dozen or more slang words that mean money. But we might be unsure what certain financial terms -- operating income, liquidity -- mean. When you follow the U.S. Postal Service, this might put you at a disadvantage, especially when it’s quarterly financial statement time.

    Operating income measures earnings (revenues minus expenses) before interest and taxes. Liquidity is the amount of financial resources (cash, equity, assets, credit) that an organization can easily convert to cash for spending and investments. Postal officials often mention the Postal Service’s lack of liquidity. Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett said in January that the Postal Service’s liquidity, at its highest point in the year, is only about $3 billion. This isn’t much cushion for a $65 billion entity. And the cushion shrinks at certain points in the year, such as in October, when the Postal Service makes its workers’ compensation payment to the Labor Department.

    UPS and FedEx, companies with revenues about $20 billion less than the Postal Service, have liquidity of about $12 billion and $14 billion respectively, he noted. But what does this mean exactly? Well, companies with strong liquidity positions, such as UPS and FedEx, have much greater access to capital than the Postal Service. They have more opportunity to invest, whether in capital projects or new businesses. The Postal Service’s weak cash position means it cannot invest in the infrastructure or innovation. It also has no margin for error. What happens if a catastrophe strikes in October right after the Postal Service has made its workers compensation payment?

    Finally, the Postal Service has no available cash to pay down its debt. It reached its statutory borrowing limit of $15 billion in FY 2012 and it has been unable to borrow from the Treasury Department for more than a year.

    The Postal Service says employees will get paid – this is not an issue. And it has enough cash on hand to pay suppliers. But it has had to forego needed investment in its infrastructure, such as facility maintenance and vehicle replacement. And as the Postal Service considers a new business model for the digital age, it has no available cash to invest in new opportunities. It has not had the funds to make its required prefunding payment to the retiree healthcare fund for the past few years. The postage price increase in late January should help its cash position, but it will not build the bigger cushion it needs.

    Share your thoughts on the Postal Service’s cash position. What is hurt most by the Postal Service’s lack of liquidity? Is it missing opportunities because of its cash shortage? If its liquidity position were to improve, what should be the Postal Service’s priorities (infrastructure investment, paying down debt, lowering postal rates, etc.)? 

  • on Aug 12th, 2013 in Finances: Cost & Revenue | 6 comments

    Performance-based contracting lets government agencies acquire services using contracts that define what is to be achieved, not necessarily how the work is done. The idea is that contractors have the freedom to define how they will achieve the objectives, which allows them to use innovative approaches. The government benefits by receiving best-value products and services.

    Procurement professionals believe performance-based contracting makes acquisitions better by helping government procurement officials be good stewards of taxpayer dollars — which government contracting is all about. At first glance, it might appear that performance-based contracting transfers a large share of responsibility from government to contractor by requiring the contractor to come up with the actual solution to meet the government agency’s metrics. However, the government procurement official’s responsibilities are not less, they are just different. Performance-based contracting has four attributes: a statement of objectives that describes the desired outcome, measurable performance metrics, a quality assurance plan to monitor the contractor’s performance, and incentives to encourage better performance. Government officials need to be educated in methodologies and metrics to ensure success.

    The U.S. Postal Service uses performance-based contracting for some of its contracts, but not all. A recent Office of Inspector General audit found that the Postal Service does not have adequate controls to oversee performance-based contracts and it does not track this method in its data systems. Thus, it does not always take advantage of the benefits of performance-based contracting. Although officials did not track these contracts, our audit identified six performance-based contracts with incentives valued at $602 million. We also identified two additional contracts that could have been awarded as performance-based contracts but were not, even though postal policy encourages their use because of the potential benefits, such as cost reduction and revenue generation.

    The Postal Service has worked to streamline and improve its procurement process to create a more business-like approach to purchasing and to reduce purchasing costs. The performance-based contracting approach gives the Postal Service an opportunity to further the goals of streamlining and reinvention because it gives contractors more latitude for determining methods of performance, with more responsibility for performance quality.

    What do you think is the best way for the Postal Service to monitor contract performance? How should the Postal Service determine what to monitor and how frequently? What other ways could the Postal Service improve the procurement process?

  • on Jan 9th, 2013 in Finances: Cost & Revenue | 3 comments
    Some have argued that the U.S. Postal Service should be allowed to raise prices in order to increase revenue and ensure that the sales of their products cover their costs. Others have argued that the current costing system may overstate the cost of some products, as it assumes the Postal Service is able to adjust its capacity, such as quickly closing a facility or eliminating a tour, to match the decline in mail volume. So, the second argument goes, if the Postal Service is unable to adjust its capacity, it should temporarily lower the prices of certain products, in order to encourage volume, as it did in the past with its “summer sales.” The latter argument was briefly discussed in the OIG’s recently released paper “A Primer on Postal Costing Issues.” As a follow-up to that paper, we asked Professor Michael D. Bradley of George Washington University, an expert in postal economics, to co-author a paper on the use of short-run costing and pricing. Essentially, short-run costing varies from the current costing system in that it does not assume that the Postal Service can reduce its capacity as fast as volume falls. Using short-run costs to develop prices would allow the Postal Service to temporarily lower prices, at least on some products, to encourage volume that would make use of the excess capacity while the Postal Service creates a plan to reduce the excess capacity. However, the paper warns that short-run costs should only be used to set prices if they can be measured accurately and updated regularly and the Postal Service can be sure that a lower price will lead to a large enough increase in volume, otherwise they will simply lose revenue. Other issues that need to be considered when using short-run costs to set prices include:
    • Using short-run costs can result in prices that may generate additional revenue in the short term but will still not allow the Postal Service to cover its institutional costs.
    • Prices based on short-run costs would be more volatile.
    • Customers may be unsure as to whether prices are permanent or temporary.
    • Accurate measurement is difficult and would require significant effort from experts in postal operations.
    • The Postal Service may lose the incentive to shed the excess capacity.
    What do you think – should the Postal Service lower prices on some products to reflect current excess capacity? Or would lowering prices only lead to further revenue declines?

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