Is Your Benefits Firm Built to Handle a Benefits Bear Market?

I often reference a quote from Mark Cuban that says, “Everyone’s a genius in a bull market.” When you think about the benefits business it has really been a bull market since I have been in the business, which is 30 years now. Everything seems to be going up, up, up, regardless of the quality of the product or service. Benefits brokers have benefited significantly, getting medical inflation raises for years. Admittedly they have also been adding more services, often at no cost. But this is behavior you see in a bull market. It is easy when the math is in your favor. However, do we even know what a benefits firm would look like in a bear market?

I know what a benefits bull market looks like. Companies good and bad are thriving. Money is spent fairly recklessly. Wages are often above the averages for similar jobs in other industries. There are trips and more trips. Everything is great. Those are the good parts.

Bull markets can also have some negative effects. Weaknesses in one’s business or value proposition aren’t easily recognized. Inefficiency is hidden. Complacency can creep into the organization. There can be a failure to recognize competitive threats. Common business practices aren’t practiced. And a belief that one’s world will never change can blind one’s vision of the future or reality.

But what does a bear market in benefits look like? What can cause a bear market? Commission compression? A move to fee for service? Government intervention including changes in tax laws? Obamacare collapsing? The budget deficit getting higher with rising health care costs being a big contributor? The MLR? Hospitals getting squeezed? Higher deductibles and employee contributions? All these factors appear to be present right now, favoring a need for change. Could it signal a coming bear market?

Warren Buffet loves bear markets because he thinks there are deals to be made. And it is bear markets that allow the cream to rise to the top. Bear markets eliminate a lot of competition. But do we really know who the superstars are? Can we tell the real genius from the bull market only genius? And what does a bear market benefits firm look like? Without really having been in a bear market I am not sure what one really looks like.

If a benefits bear market hits there will be opportunities. Opportunities for those who have anticipated changes; for those who built a model to sustain over the long haul; for firms whose infrastructure can adapt quickly to change; for those who have worked hard to expand their non-medical revenue reducing some business risk; for those who have differentiated their value proposition not by giving things away but by delivering products or services of value that an employer would pay for. Think about that one for a second. Of all those “value added services” a firm provides, what would an employer pay for and what would they pay? Would they pay anything at all?

Much like my financial advisor I don’t have that crystal ball. And it is hard to run a business when things you don’t have any control over can cause you chaos overnight. But hoping the benefits world doesn’t change isn’t a strategy. You also can’t put your head in the sand either. Recognizing business threats is a critical component of any business. Even Apple assesses business threats. So don’t let the first benefits bear market get you down. Some good planning can reap great rewards, even when the world changes. Or maybe we will have a bull market forever. Place your bets!

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