Roosevelt, Wage and Price Controls, Fringe Benefits, Health Insurance, Pensions, Unions, Bankruptcy and Bethlehem Steel

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 3rd, 2013

History 101

(Originally published November 20th, 2012)

The Roosevelt Administration fought Inflation by Passing a Law to Cap Employee Wages

Most times when those in government try to fix things they end up making things worse.  Giving us the unintended consequences of their best intentions.  And the government had some good intentions during World War II.  They were printing money to pay for a surge in government spending to pay for war production.  As well as a host of New Deal programs.  Which sparked off some inflation.  Inflation is bad.  Enter their best intentions.

One of the biggest drivers of inflation is wages.  Higher wages increase a company’s costs.  Which they must recover in their selling prices.  So higher wages lead to higher prices.  Higher prices increase the cost of living.  Making it more difficult for workers to get by without a pay raise.  Which puts pressure on employers to raise wages.  If they do they pass on these higher costs to their customers via higher prices.  It’s a vicious cycle.  And one all governments want to avoid.  Because higher costs reduce economic activity.  And that’s how governments get their money.  Taxing economic activity.

Enter wage and price controls.  The Roosevelt administration thought the way to solve the problem of inflation was simply passing a law to cap employee wages.  To halt the vicious cycle of escalating prices and wages.  Something employers didn’t like.  For that’s how they got the best people to work for them.  By offering them higher wages.  With that no longer an option what did these employers do to get the best people to work for them?  They started offering fringe benefits.  Which became a killer of business.

As People lived longer in Retirement Retiree Pension and Health Care Expenses Soared

Employers began offering health insurance and pensions as fringe benefits for the first time.  To get around the wage and price controls of the Roosevelt administration.  Which they had to pass on to their customers via higher prices.  So the wage and price controls failed to do what they were supposed to do.  Keep a company’s costs down.  Worse, these benefits made promises many of these businesses just couldn’t keep.

Roosevelt also empowered unions.   Who would negotiate ever more generous contracts.  By demanding generous pay and benefits for current workers.  And pensions and health care for retired workers.  But it didn’t end there.  The unions also expanded their membership as much as possible.  So in those contracts they also got very costly workplace rules.  If a lamp burnt out at a workstation the worker had to call an electrician to replace the lamp.  They could not screw in a new lamp themselves.  The unions defined every work activity in a workplace and created a job classification for it.  And only a worker in that job classification could do that work.  Which swelled the labor rolls at unionized plants.  Who all were receiving generous pay and benefits.  As were a growing number of retired workers.  Greatly increasing labor costs.

For awhile businesses could absorb these costs.  Business was growing.  As was the population.  There were more younger workers entering the factories than there were older workers retiring from them.  But things started changing in the Sixties.  The population growth rate flattened out thanks to birth control and abortion.  So as the population grew slower the domestic demand for manufactured goods fell.  While in the Seventies foreign competition increased.  So you had falling demand and a rising supply.  Making it harder to pass on those high labor costs anymore.  Which proved to be a great problem as their market share fell.  For as they laid off employees fewer and fewer workers were paying the pensions and health care costs for an ever growing number of retirees.  Pensions were chronically underfunded.  Worse, people began to live longer in retirement thanks to advances in medicine.  Increasing retiree pension and health care expenses for these businesses.  Bleeding some of them dry.

Bethlehem Steel filed Bankruptcy when they had 11,500 Active Workers and 120,000 Retirees and Dependents

Bethlehem Steel helped build America.  And win World War II.  It made the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge.  And the bridges between New York and New Jersey.  Many of the skyscrapers you see on Manhattan are made with Bethlehem steel.  Little Steel.  Second only to Big Steel.  U.S. Steel.  Big Steel and Little Steel dominated the US steel industry.  Until, that is, foreign competition entered their market.  And the steel minimills arrived on the scene.  Neither of which had unionized workforces.  Or those legacy costs (retiree pension and health care expenses).  Which spelled the doom of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel.  From 1954 to 2003 hot-rolled steel sheet prices rose 220%.  While wages soared over 900%.  And it got worse.

Employment peaked in 1957 at 167,000 workers.  By the mid Eighties that fell to 35,000.  With some 70,000 retirees and dependents.  That is, Bethlehem’s retiree costs were about twice their active labor costs.  As business continued to fall employment fell to 11,500.  While their retirees and dependents rose to 120,000.  Just over 10 retirees for each active worker.  Unfunded pension obligations soared to $4.3 billion.  Just impossible numbers to recover from.  Which is why Bethlehem Steel is no longer with us today.  The company was dissolved in 2001.  With International Steel Group (ISG) buying some of their remaining assets.  Then, in 2005, a foreign steel company, Mittal Steel, merged with ISG.  Leaving no remnants of Bethlehem Steel in American hands.

ISG got the steelworkers union to reduce the number of job classifications in the Bethlehem plants they took over from 32 to 5.  Greatly shrinking the labor rolls.  And increasing efficiency.  Helping these remaining assets to move forward.  The pension fund was taken over.  With retirees losing only about $700 million, giving retirees a pension of up to $44,386.  But retirees lost their health care.  Some $3.1 billion in spending obligations that the company couldn’t pay.  And didn’t.  A sad ending for an American great.  A failure the Roosevelt administration was responsible for.  As their good intentions resulted in unintended consequences.  Setting businesses up to fail with costly fringe benefits.  Adding yet another demand to the union’s list of demands.  Spending obligations these businesses couldn’t pay once domestic demand fell while steel supplies rose.  Leading to the inevitable.  Bankruptcy of large unionized companies.

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Cost of Health Insurance

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 27th, 2013

Economics 101

Making Health Insurance a Fringe Benefit removed Market Forces from the Equation

The reason why health insurance is so expensive is because it is not insurance anymore.  It’s more of a welfare program.  Where other people pay.  Whereas insurance mitigates financial risk.  People pay a small premium to insure against a large financial loss.  They may pay $250/year to insure something that may cost $25,000 to replace.  For something they may own for 10 years.  Because they would rather spend $250 each year (for a total of $2,500 over those 10 years) than have to replace it by paying another $25,000 should something happen.  Insurance reduces the amount of money you can lose.  In this case the greatest financial loss is reduced from $25,000 down to $2,500.  This is insurance.

Health insurance used to be like this.  When we paid for it ourselves.  But things changed when it became an employee benefit.  Where we no longer saw the true cost of that insurance.  This happened during World War II.  As FDR put in wage caps.  Why?  With all the men in the military and wartime production through the roof there was a shortage of labor.  And the last thing FDR wanted on top of the inflation they were causing by printing so much money to pay for the war was wage inflation.  Hence the wage caps.  But the problem with wage caps is that employers could not entice the best workers to come work for them by offering them higher wages.  So to entice the best workers to come work for them and get around FDR’s wage caps employers began offering fringe benefits.

This is the cause of all our health care woes today.  Making health insurance a fringe benefit.  For it removed market forces from the equation.  People receiving the benefit had no idea what the benefit cost.  And did not care.  Which wasn’t a problem at first.  But then the Sixties came around.  And women stopped having as many babies.  Causing the population to start getting older.  Worse (from the perspective of paying for health insurance), people were beginning to live longer.  So when a person retired from a company they lived a long retirement.  So companies who offered these generous fringe benefits began to suffer under the cost of them.  Between pensions and health care costs retirees were costing some companies more than their active workers.  Because they were living so long into retirement.  (Just as these long retirements are straining Social Security and Medicare).  And modern medicine just keeps pulling them back from the brink of death.  Prolonging this crushing financial burden.

Health Insurance is more Expensive than it once was because it now Pays for Routine Medical Expenses

Compounding this problem is how health insurance is no longer insurance.  Instead of a small premium insuring against a large financial loss people expect health insurance to pay for everything.  And get righteously indignant whenever they have to pay anything out of pocket.  From a prescription co-pay.  To a small co-pay at a doctor’s office.  This is not paying a small premium to insure against a large financial loss.  This is demanding a free ride.  If health insurance was actually insurance it would look something like this:

Health Insurance Cost - Insurance

This assumes a health group with 100 participants.  Of this 100 five people suffer a serious accident in one year.  Incurring a large and unexpected hospital expense of $6,000 each.  While three people suffer a serious illness that same year.  Incurring a large and unexpected hospital expense of $4,500 each.  The total for these large and unexpected costs is $43,500.  If we divide this over the 100 members of the group that comes to an annual health insurance premium of $435 each.  Or $36.25/month.  Or $8.37/week.  Which isn’t much.  If you were one of those suffering a serious accident you didn’t have your personal finances wiped out by an unexpected $6,000 hospital bill.  Instead you only paid a manageable and budgeted $435 each year.  In other words, spending $435 saved $5,565.  Not a bad deal.  This is insurance.  Because it only paid for the unexpected.  Not our routine health care expenses that we should pay out of pocket.  If we add these routine expenses into the health insurance formula we can see how they increase the cost of health insurance.

Health Insurance Cost - Welfare

Assume each person consume $750 in routine medical costs.  For office visits.  Allergy shots.  Vaccinations for the children.  Flu shots.  Seeing the doctor when you have a cold.  Annual checkups.  Physicals.  Cancer screening.  Prescriptions.  Etc.  Those things that can be reasonably expected each year.  When our health insurance policies pay for these routine medical expenses note the large increase in the annual insurance policy premium.  Going from $435 to $1,185.  An increase of 172%.  Everyone will pay $1,185.  Whether they consume $750 in medical costs or not.  Also, of the three things health insurance pays for (serious accidents, serious illnesses and routine medical) routine medical is the biggest of the three.  Explaining why health insurance is now so much more expensive than it needs to be.

It was the Pension and Health care Costs of Retirees that Bankrupted General Motors

This is why it is better to pay out of pocket for these routine costs.  Because if you’re really healthy one year and never see the doctor you will not consume $750 in medical costs.  So if you normally pay these out of pocket but don’t you would only spend $435 that year for real health insurance.  Not the $1,185 that pays for everything.  Whether you use it or not.  This is where market forces come in.  Instead of paying for a costly doctor’s visit when you have a cold you may just buy some over the counter cold medicine from the drugstore.  This is how we behave when we pay for stuff.  But when you introduce a third party it alters our behavior.

“Whether you use it or not.”  When people can get something more for no extra money they are going to take it.  Like going for seconds and thirds at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  It doesn’t cost anything more for the second and third plate.  In fact people will feel cheated if they don’t go for plates 2 and 3.  Because all-you-can-it is pretty expensive if you only eat one plate.  Because that one price pays for 2, 3, even 4 plates.  If you can eat that much.  It’s this mentality that causes people to go to the doctor when they have the sniffles.  So they can get ‘free’ antibiotics.  Because it doesn’t cost anything more.  Since their health insurance is already paying for it.

But it does cost more to those who are paying for it.  A lot more.  So much more that small business owners can’t afford to provide health insurance for their employees.  Because to do so would require that they greatly increase their selling price.  Which they can’t do and expect to stay in business.  Because the market sets the price.  Not them.  It’s up to them to figure out how to sell at a price the people will pay.  And if they raise it too high to pay for health insurance for their employees the people will stop buying from them.  Putting them out of business.  Even bigger businesses struggle with this.  For it was the pension and health care costs of retirees that bankrupted General Motors.  Which was one of those companies that started offering health insurance as a benefit during World War II.  Giving us all our health care woes today.

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Roosevelt, Wage and Price Controls, Fringe Benefits, Health Insurance, Pensions, Unions, Bankruptcy and Bethlehem Steel

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 20th, 2012

History 101

The Roosevelt Administration fought Inflation by Passing a Law to Cap Employee Wages

Most times when those in government try to fix things they end up making things worse.  Giving us the unintended consequences of their best intentions.  And the government had some good intentions during World War II.  They were printing money to pay for a surge in government spending to pay for war production.  As well as a host of New Deal programs.  Which sparked off some inflation.  Inflation is bad.  Enter their best intentions.

One of the biggest drivers of inflation is wages.  Higher wages increase a company’s costs.  Which they must recover in their selling prices.  So higher wages lead to higher prices.  Higher prices increase the cost of living.  Making it more difficult for workers to get by without a pay raise.  Which puts pressure on employers to raise wages.  If they do they pass on these higher costs to their customers via higher prices.  It’s a vicious cycle.  And one all governments want to avoid.  Because higher costs reduce economic activity.  And that’s how governments get their money.  Taxing economic activity.

Enter wage and price controls.  The Roosevelt administration thought the way to solve the problem of inflation was simply passing a law to cap employee wages.  To halt the vicious cycle of escalating prices and wages.  Something employers didn’t like.  For that’s how they got the best people to work for them.  By offering them higher wages.  With that no longer an option what did these employers do to get the best people to work for them?  They started offering fringe benefits.  Which became a killer of business.

As People lived longer in Retirement Retiree Pension and Health Care Expenses Soared

Employers began offering health insurance and pensions as fringe benefits for the first time.  To get around the wage and price controls of the Roosevelt administration.  Which they had to pass on to their customers via higher prices.  So the wage and price controls failed to do what they were supposed to do.  Keep a company’s costs down.  Worse, these benefits made promises many of these businesses just couldn’t keep.

Roosevelt also empowered unions.   Who would negotiate ever more generous contracts.  By demanding generous pay and benefits for current workers.  And pensions and health care for retired workers.  But it didn’t end there.  The unions also expanded their membership as much as possible.  So in those contracts they also got very costly workplace rules.  If a lamp burnt out at a workstation the worker had to call an electrician to replace the lamp.  They could not screw in a new lamp themselves.  The unions defined every work activity in a workplace and created a job classification for it.  And only a worker in that job classification could do that work.  Which swelled the labor rolls at unionized plants.  Who all were receiving generous pay and benefits.  As were a growing number of retired workers.  Greatly increasing labor costs.

For awhile businesses could absorb these costs.  Business was growing.  As was the population.  There were more younger workers entering the factories than there were older workers retiring from them.  But things started changing in the Sixties.  The population growth rate flattened out thanks to birth control and abortion.  So as the population grew slower the domestic demand for manufactured goods fell.  While in the Seventies foreign competition increased.  So you had falling demand and a rising supply.  Making it harder to pass on those high labor costs anymore.  Which proved to be a great problem as their market share fell.  For as they laid off employees fewer and fewer workers were paying the pensions and health care costs for an ever growing number of retirees.  Pensions were chronically underfunded.  Worse, people began to live longer in retirement thanks to advances in medicine.  Increasing retiree pension and health care expenses for these businesses.  Bleeding some of them dry.

Bethlehem Steel filed Bankruptcy when they had 11,500 Active Workers and 120,000 Retirees and Dependents

Bethlehem Steel helped build America.  And win World War II.  It made the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge.  And the bridges between New York and New Jersey.  Many of the skyscrapers you see on Manhattan are made with Bethlehem steel.  Little Steel.  Second only to Big Steel.  U.S. Steel.  Big Steel and Little Steel dominated the US steel industry.  Until, that is, foreign competition entered their market.  And the steel minimills arrived on the scene.  Neither of which had unionized workforces.  Or those legacy costs (retiree pension and health care expenses).  Which spelled the doom of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel.  From 1954 to 2003 hot-rolled steel sheet prices rose 220%.  While wages soared over 900%.  And it got worse.

Employment peaked in 1957 at 167,000 workers.  By the mid Eighties that fell to 35,000.  With some 70,000 retirees and dependents.  That is, Bethlehem’s retiree costs were about twice their active labor costs.  As business continued to fall employment fell to 11,500.  While their retirees and dependents rose to 120,000.  Just over 10 retirees for each active worker.  Unfunded pension obligations soared to $4.3 billion.  Just impossible numbers to recover from.  Which is why Bethlehem Steel is no longer with us today.  The company was dissolved in 2001.  With International Steel Group (ISG) buying some of their remaining assets.  Then, in 2005, a foreign steel company, Mittal Steel, merged with ISG.  Leaving no remnants of Bethlehem Steel in American hands.

ISG got the steelworkers union to reduce the number of job classifications in the Bethlehem plants they took over from 32 to 5.  Greatly shrinking the labor rolls.  And increasing efficiency.  Helping these remaining assets to move forward.  The pension fund was taken over.  With retirees losing only about $700 million, giving retirees a pension of up to $44,386.  But retirees lost their health care.  Some $3.1 billion in spending obligations that the company couldn’t pay.  And didn’t.  A sad ending for an American great.  A failure the Roosevelt administration was responsible for.  As their good intentions resulted in unintended consequences.  Setting businesses up to fail with costly fringe benefits.  Adding yet another demand to the union’s list of demands.  Spending obligations these businesses couldn’t pay once domestic demand fell while steel supplies rose.  Leading to the inevitable.  Bankruptcy of large unionized companies.

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Labor Costs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 19th, 2012

Economics 101

Small Business Owners may have Nicer Homes but Chances are they are Mortgaged to the Hilt

A lot of people think business owners are cheapskates.  Greedy bastards.  Who hate their employees.  And try to pay them as little as possible.  Not for any business reasons.  But just because they are so greedy.  And hateful.  During bad economic times when the employer has to make some cuts labor leaders will tell the rank and file don’t believe the employer.  “Just look at the house the boss lives in.  And the house you live in.  Whose is better?  Bigger?  That’s right.  The boss’ house is.  Always remember that.”

Yes, bosses may have nicer homes.  But chances are they are mortgaged to the hilt.  Not to mention the fact that these bosses may be working an 80-hour week.  Which is not uncommon for a small business owner.  Especially during bad economic times.  As they may be negotiating with creditors, their banker, their vendors, keeping their customers happy and trying to find new customers.  While the rank and file work their 40 hours, collect their paychecks and enjoy their free time.

So it’s not easy being the boss.  That’s why so few people want to be the boss.  For it’s easier being an employee.  You work.  You get paid.  And you leave work at work.  Even if you think you’re not being paid as much as you deserve to be.  Something most employees feel.  That they’re overworked.  And underpaid.  But they never look at things through their employer’s eyes.  And see what they really cost their boss.

Most Businesses have gone from a Defined Benefit Pension Plan to a Defined Contribution 401(k)

What an employee gets paid and what an employer pays for that employee are two different things.  To begin with an employer pays for more hours of an employee’s time than he or she actually works.  When you factor in vacation time, holidays and sick days an employer may pay for 2,080 hours while the employee only works 1,896 hours.  If an employee makes $35 an hour those nonworking hours can add up to $6,440.  Which an employee gets for doing nothing.  We call them fringe benefits.  Just an employer’s way of saying, “Hey, I don’t hate you.  Here’s some money for doing nothing.”

Why do they pay this?  Because of free market capitalism.  If they don’t pay it someone else may.  And attract their good workers away from them.  Because if there is something employees will do is jump ship the moment they get a better offer.  Which is a good thing.  This is supply and demand.  And despite workers feeling overworked and underpaid this free market dynamic makes sure employees get paid as much as they can while helping employers pay as little as they can.  That equilibrium point where employees will keep working.  While leaving employers still competitive.  Though that’s getting harder and harder to do these days.  As the cost of doing business has never been higher.

In addition to these fringe benefits there are also health insurance, life insurance and retirement contributions.  With health care often being the greatest single employee cost to a small business owner.  Which is why most now make employees pay a small portion of their health care these days.  Retirement contributions have also gotten very costly.  Few people still have a defined benefit pension plan these days.  Typically an owner will offer a defined contribution 401(k) for the employee to contribute to.  And if times are good the employer may match their contribution up to a certain amount.  But employers will call this a discretionary contribution.  And it will be one of the first things to go when they are having cash flow problems in a bad economy.

The Last Thing a Business Owner needs while trying to Deal with Soaring Labor Costs are more Costs and Taxes

In addition to fringe benefits there are payroll taxes and insurances.  Such as Social Security.  Which the employer and employee split.  At least in theory.  The employer currently pays 6.2% on the first $110,100 in an employee’s earnings.  The employee kicks in 4.2% (which may go up another 2 points after the fiscal cliff, as that tax cut expires).  In reality the employee doesn’t pay any of this.  They get their check and go on their way while the employer has to find the cash to pay the 10.4% due.  For an employee earning $66,360 that Social Security tax payable comes to $7,571.  Another big check the owner has to write is for state unemployment.  Which can be anywhere around $4,000.  The following chart summarizes these and additional labor costs (note: the retirement contribution is probably between a 401(k) matching contribution and a defined benefit pension contribution).

An employee with a pay rate of $35/hour will gross $66,360.  Deductions will lower actual take-home pay.  But the employer’s total cost for this employee in this example is $108,252.  Or an additional $41,892 than the employee grosses.  Which comes out to another $17.04 an hour.  Something the employee never sees.  This is why labor is so costly.  And why employers want to hire as few people as possible.  For each additional employee they hire (in this example) they have to pay an additional 22.2% in payroll taxes/insurances.  And an additional 41% in fringe benefits.  Or a combined 63.1%.  In addition to what they’re paying the employees for their actual work.

And this is why employers want to offload health care (especially for their retirees).  And their pension liabilities.  As they can add an additional 30% (or more) to their labor costs.  What started out as fringe benefits to attract some of the best workers is now bankrupting many companies.  People are living so long into their retirement that these cost are growing faster and larger than any other cost a business has.  And it’s also why small business owners are very worried about new regulations and taxes.  For the last thing they need while trying to deal with these soaring labor costs are more costs.  Or taxes.  Which doesn’t make them cheap or greedy.  It just makes them very cautious business owners who are trying to keep their businesses afloat in an ever more difficult business environment.

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