POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 31, 2012
WASHINGTON » The U.S. Postal Service is bracing for a first-ever default on billions in payments due to the Treasury, adding to widening uncertainty about the mail agency's solvency as first-class letters plummet and Congress deadlocks on ways to stem the red ink.
With cash running perilously low, two legally required payments for future postal retirees' health benefits — $5.5 billion due Wednesday and another $5.6 billion due in September — will be left unpaid, the mail agency said Monday. Postal officials said they also are studying whether they may need to delay other obligations. In the coming months a $1.5 billion payment is due to the Labor Department for workers' compensation, which for now it expects to make, as well as millions in interest payments to the Treasury.
The defaults won't stir any kind of catastrophe in day-to-day mail service. Post offices will stay open, mail trucks will run, employees will get paid, current retirees will get health benefits.
But a growing chorus of analysts, labor unions and business customers is troubled by continuing losses that point to deeper, longer-term financial damage, as the mail agency finds it increasingly preoccupied with staving off immediate bankruptcy while Congress delays on a postal overhaul bill.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has described a "crisis of confidence" amid the mounting red ink that could lead even once-loyal customers to abandon use of the mail.
"I think for my generation it was a great asset — if you had a letter or package and you needed it to get up to the North Pole, you knew it would be delivered," said Jim Husa, 87, of Lawrence, Mich., after stopping to mail letters recently at his local post office. Noting the mail agency's financial woes, he added, "Times have changed and we old-timers know that. FedEx and UPS and the Internet seem to be making the Postal Service obsolete."
Banks are promoting electronic payments, citing in part the growing uncertainty of postal mail. The federal government will stop mailing paper checks starting next year for millions of people who receive Social Security and other benefits, paying via direct deposit or debit cards instead.
First-class mail volume, which has fallen 25 percent since 2006, is projected to drop another 30 percent by 2016.
Art Sackler, co-coordinator of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a group representing the private-sector mailing industry, said the payment defaults couldn't come at a worse time, as many major and midsize mailers are preparing their budgets for next year.
"The impact of the postal default may not be seen by the public, but it will be felt by the business community," he said. "Mailers will be increasingly wary about the stability of the Postal Service. The logical and likely move would be to divert more mail out of the system."
The Postal Service, which releases third-quarter financial results next week, has projected a record $14.1 billion loss for the year. It expects to avoid bankruptcy in October only by defaulting on the two health prepayments, totaling $11.1 billion. It faces a cash crunch again next year.
Peter Nesvold, a financial analyst with Jefferies and Co., says the post office's financial future will depend on how Congress resolves its conflict over the mail agency's core mission.
While the Postal Service is a business expected to stay afloat, it also has a legal obligation to provide uniform first-class mail service even to sparsely populated, far-flung areas of the U.S., all for the same price of a 45-cent postage stamp. UPS and FedEx don't deliver to those areas that are less profitable, contracting with the Postal Service to get the job done.