First of all, the charge is an estimate of future costs and will have no immediate impact on cash flow. And the estimate is unusually large because the accounting rules require costs that would otherwise be reported in the future to be reported now, simply because they are the result of a change in tax treatment.
As my former colleague Marie Leone reports at CFO.com, such “true-ups” over differences in tax and book accounting practices are just that. The real cost will be spread out over many quarters.
More importantly, the hit is the result of a loss of a major taxpayer subsidy. Maybe it made sense before to provide that. But given all the concern about the federal deficit, it seems to me that asking shareholders to bear a bit more of the burden for retiree drug benefits is hardly unfair.
And in the greater scheme of things, the hit may be so small as to have little impact on companies’ valuations, as a Credit Suisse analyst pointed out the other day. General Electric didn’t even break out its estimate for that reason, calling the cost “immaterial.”
The question is whether companies will stop paying for the benefits because of the cost, and that’s unlikely unless they’re willing to compensate for the loss with higher wages, as economist Dean Baker reiterated to me in an email late last week.
“The standard economist view is that the cost of health care comes overwhelmingly out of wages,” Baker wrote. “If they have to pay more in taxes, then it will mostly come out of workers’ pay and have very little impact on their costs and ability to compete.”
If on the other hand, a decline in healthcare costs leads to higher wages, that would mean a stronger economy, so I don’t see how either taxpayers or shareholders will lose here in the long run.
Yes, that’s a big if, but as I’ve said before, the new healthcare law is the biggest effort to rein in costs undertaken to date. Of course more must be done, but the law will provide a big impetus to those efforts.
Hopefully, all this will become clearer as a result of the hearings Rep. Henry Waxman plans to hold next week on this issue, but I’m not holding my breath.