It's gonna be huge. And we'll be releasing very, very specific details very soon.
Such drool-inducing tantalizers have proven a common refrain of President Donald Trump's. Now, essentially the same teaser-tactic has been co-opted by three U.S. business titans in a press release announcing a major healthcare initiative.
The trio includes two of the world's richest men—Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A) CEO Warren Buffett and Amazon Inc. (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos—along with Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) , the largest U.S. bank.
The CEOs and their companies plan to "partner" (a verb) on ways to address healthcare for U.S. workers, "with the aim of improving employee satisfaction," according to a press release Tuesday. They'll bring "scale and complementary expertise to this long-term effort" and will "pursue this objective through an independent company that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints."
Free from profit-making incentives? Except for their own, of course. The press release makes clear that the main goal of the plan is to reduce costs for the three corporations, themselves already among the most profitable in the U.S. So presumably they'll become even more profitable by jettisoning contracts with health-insurance companies that also aim to make a profit.
"It's curious to see the negative reference to the profit motive, coming from three very-for-profit companies," said Matthew Borsch, a healthcare analyst at BMO Capital Markets in New York. "It's not quite clear what profit-marking angle they're being critical of."
The companies' announcement was greeted with glowing news stories and sent health-insurance stocks tumbling in New York trading on Tuesday. The market reaction reflects a deference in America to tycoons with a proven track record of success in business, which Buffett, Bezos and Dimon can all claim.
But investors can be forgiven for harboring skepticism that the three celebrity business leaders can do better at cutting healthcare costs than the tens of millions of professionals, consultants and lawmakers who have been working on the issue for decades. And presumably the companies' own human-resources executives have been, all the while, scouring for ways to squeeze out healthcare expenses -- prodded by their bosses.
The triumvirate of CEOs went as far as to couch the announcement in jingoistic terms: "Our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans," Dimon said.
According to Buffett, "the ballooning costs of healthcare act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy."
The reality is that healthcare is one of many costs in a vast, interconnected economy, just like car insurance and electricity and train transport (which Berkshire sells) or pay-for-view television (in the case of Amazon).
JPMorgan, for its part, has opted not to raise interest rates for regular people on their savings accounts, even though the bank is profiting handsomely from the Federal Reserve's rate hikes over the past year. That's a forgone profit for retirees and other conservative investors who choose to keep their money in bank accounts rather than volatile stock markets; the U.S. economy might benefit if those savers had more money to spend on purchases from, say, Amazon.
Dimon got a 5.3% raise last year in his total compensation to $29.5 million, even as the bank's roughly 250,000 employees saw their average pay held flat. On Monday, Dimon said he plans to stay at the bank for another five years, a tenure that would bring him another $150 million at last year's pay rate. JPMorgan is a for-profit company, after all, and the spoils often go to the people at the top.
Cynicism aside, what are the companies actually doing? The press release effort contained few details.
"The initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost," according to the press release.
Technology solutions. Simplicity. Transparency. Who'd a thunk?
Hold on, though. According to the press release: The plan is still "in its early planning stages."
No wonder. There's a lot to do, starting with a basic business concept that Buffett, Bezos and Dimon should know well from their decades trying to make a lot of money for shareholders and themselves: barriers to entry -- the deep industry knowledge and valuable assets that make it hard for new entrants to compete.
In a healthcare context, those might include the tedious business of forging networks for employees to get services from doctors and hospitals, a type of on-the-ground local spadework that can only come from people who know people. Sure, they could buy a company that runs a network, but that would cost money, and as with most acquisitions the seller would likely demand a premium to relinquish rights to the profit stream.
Then there's the arcana of the healthcare industry, a technical business built on science and drug development and procedures and regulations and government programs and, of course, payment systems. (Ostensibly JPMorgan could help out for a fee.)
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Finally there's the art of negotiating prices with providers, drug companies and hospitals, something medical insurers do for a living - including some with a profit motive in the case of companies like Cigna Corp. (CI) and Anthem Inc. (ANTM) that are publicly traded.
There's a chance that the new initiative might shake up the healthcare industry, bolster the economy and make Americans' lives better.
BMO's Borsch said the effort has the potential to derail a multiyear rally in health-insurance stocks.
But Borsch said he's already heard from some investors who aren't convinced that the effort will make much of a dent.
"You've got some investors and analysts who are comfortable concluding already that this isn't something that's likely to be a negative catalyst for the sector," Borsch said. "This is an industry that has a couple different barriers to entry. One is related to a lot of experience in different functions and local market knowledge."
It might work. It might be the start of a trend. But it might just be a boondoggle or an act of cage-rattling by a few famous CEOs looking to cut personnel costs.
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