Put your money where your mail is
America's postal service ponders a foray into financial services
WITH a workforce of just over 491,000 in 2013, the United States Postal Service is second only to Walmart among civilian employers in America. But it still employed more than 200,000 fewer people last year than it did just nine years earlier—when it handled nearly 500m more pieces of mail and had almost 2,000 more retail offices. The rise of e-mail has left America's massive postal service with far less to do, and it has been scrambling to find ways to raise revenue.
Earlier this year its inspector-general released a white paper suggesting that post offices should begin offering financial services, such as cheque-cashing, small loans, bill payments, international money transfers and prepaid cards to which salaries or benefits could be transferred. The reasoning is simple: a lot of Americans have scant access to banks and a lot of post offices have too little to do.
More than one-quarter of American households are unbanked or underbanked, meaning they either lack a current or savings account, or they have one but still use alternatives to banks such as cheque-cashers and payday lenders. That is an expensive habit: the average underbanked household has an annual income of only $25,500 or so, yet spends around 9.5% of that on fees and interest charged by these banking substitutes.
High-street banks find it hard to make money serving poor customers, since they tend to have little money on deposit that the banks can lend out. Penalties such as overdraft fees are not always enough to compensate. Since 2008, 93% of bank-branch closings have come in areas where median household income is below the national average.
These are the distressed customers to whose rescue the USPS hopes to ride. Some 59% of its post offices are in places with either a single bank or none at all. In rural hamlets they are often one of very few commercial establishments; even in the postal service's diminished state, there are still more than seven post offices for every Walmart in America. Post offices already sell money orders and provide electronic remittances to nine Latin American countries; from 1911 to 1967 the USPS also held personal deposits. Providing small, brief loans at lower interest rates than payday lenders could save low-income consumers hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in interest and fees. The post office would compete not with banks, but with their more expensive stand-ins.
Some, notably the head of the committee of the House of Representatives that oversees the USPS, are unconvinced. They see the postal services' expansion into financial services as government overreach, and a delay of the necessary “right-sizing” of a massive agency that does far less than it used to. Jennifer Tescher, who heads a charity focused on the underbanked called the Centre for Financial Services Innovation, notes that the USPS “has zero capacity, understanding or capability in this arena”. “The only asset they bring to the table”, she believes, “is distribution.” Even that is of limited value outside rural areas: Ms Tescher notes that just because a spot lacks bank branches does not mean it has no cheque-cashers and corner shops selling prepaid cards—many with longer and more convenient opening hours than the post office.
Although turning the USPS into a part-time financial institution may seem outlandish in America, roughly 1 billion people in 50 countries rely on their postal systems for financial services, according to the Universal Postal Union, the United Nations agency that helps the post arrive on time. The business models vary widely. In some countries post offices act as a payment centre, allowing people to receive remittances, pay bills and top up or tap money stored on their mobile phones. Some operate full-service banks: Japan Post, for instance, is one of the world's biggest. In other countries, such as Brazil, commercial banks form partnerships with post offices; in Malawi private banks can rent space from post offices.
A World Bank study found last year that postal banks are likelier than conventional ones to provide accounts to those outside the financial mainstream. The bigger the postal network, the greater the ability to reach such people. That may not convince those who would like to see the USPS shrink, but for those who want to preserve it, it could help to justify its scale.
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