$238 Billion Loss For USPS; Saturday Mail & Package Delivery May End

The cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday that it will incur about $238 billion in losses in the next 10 years if Congress doesn't permit it to revamp its outdated business model. The agency is proposing an adjusted mail service schedule, which will likely cut Saturday delivery, and eliminating its prepaid retiree health benefits. That alone, it says, will cut $90 billion in costs over the next 10 years.

The challenges hurting USPS's bottom line reflect a "macro change in society," Postmaster General Jack Potter said at a press conference Monday previewing the proposed changes. "All posts around the world are challenged, just as we are, by the diversion of hard copy to electronic medium."

USPS unveiled a list of cost cutting measures, including closing some branches and raising its prices, two moves which would both require Congressional approval. The agency also said that it expects to save another $123 billion between now and 2020 by renegotiating transportation contracts, cutting work hours, and expanding use of self-service kiosks in grocery stores and other popular retail spots -- measures that don't require Congressional approval.

USPS is trying to curb steep losses. It posted a $3.8 billion loss in its 2009 fiscal year, the latest in a multiyear string of whopping losses. Mail volume was down 12.7% for the year, a trend the agency expects to continue over the next decade as more consumers opt for online bill payments and message delivery.

The Post Office was $10 billion in debt as of Sept. 30 -- not far off from its $15 billion debt limit, which the agency expects to hit in its 2011 fiscal year.

USPS spent $4.8 million on studies by outside consultants, Accenture, the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey and Co. to forecast a 10-year outlook and present a plan that the agency calls both "ambitious and aggressive." Any changes to the government agency's business model would have to be reviewed by the Postal Regulatory Commission, presented in a series of public hearings and approved by Congress.

The Post Office, an independent government agency, does not receive taxpayer dollars and is funded entirely by its own revenue. However, the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 constrains the agency's operations. It prohibits USPS from closing small branches based solely on economic factors, and prevents the agency from expanding its services beyond postal delivery.

Post offices in some countries, including Italy and Japan, have boosted their sales by offering ancillary services, like banking. But unless Congress steps in, USPS cannot expand beyond the postal-mail realm.

Postmaster General Potter said relaxing some of the agency's stringent regulations could allow it to tap into its strengths as one of the largest retail networks in America, as well as "The Most Trusted Government Agency" -- a title USPS has won the last five years in a row.

With 32,000 post offices throughout the country, USPS has more retail locations than McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500), Starbucks (SBUX, Fortune 500), Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) and Walgreens (WAG, Fortune 500) combined, Thomas Dohrmann, partner at McKinsey & Company, said in the presentation Monday. That said, the average foot traffic for a post office is about one tenth of that at Walgreens -- a mere 600 weekly customers.

USPS has already begun taking the axe to its budget. The agency made $6 billion in cuts last year, reducing its workforce by about 40,000 employees and chopping overtime hours, transportation costs and other expenses. Congress passed legislation allowing the organization to cut retiree health benefit payments by $4 billion.

Despite those measures, the agency still expects a net loss of $7.8 billion in fiscal 2010.

USPS employs about 600,000 workers and currently has a nationwide hiring freeze. Additionally, Chief Financial Officer Joseph Corbett says he expects to reduce its payrolls by the equivalent of 50,000 full-time employees in fiscal 2010 through natural attrition and by reducing overtime hours. The agency also wants to renegotiate its contracts with four unions in order to gain greater flexibility in scheduling part-time workers and moving employees across departments.

A significant postal price hike is also under consideration, although the price most consumers care about -- the rate for a first-class stamp -- is locked in at 44 cents for 2010.

"At the end of the day, I'm convinced that if we make the changes that are necessary, we can continue to provide universal service for America for decades to come," Potter said. "We can turn back from the red to the black, but there are some very significant changes that are going to have to be made."

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