And not because of Covid.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from the good folks at Service Corporation International, “North America’s leading provider of funeral, cremation, and cemetery services” - handling 450,000 corpses* a year.
(*not their word).
Service Corporation’s earnings boomed in 2020 and 2021, thanks to Covid. Funerals are a solid but slow-growth business, and the trend toward cremations hasn’t helped. But between 2019 and 2021, SCI’s earnings per share more than doubled, from $1.90 to $4.57.
At first, SCI worried that growth was what it called “pull-forward.” In other words, because Covid mostly killed people who were close to death anyway, more deaths in 2020 and 2021 would just mean fewer later.
Lucky for Service Corporation and its investors, pull-forward isn’t turning out to be a problem. Americans are still dying at rates well above normal, even as Covid becomes a minimal part of business this year.
(Death! It’s looking up! From SCI’s May 5 presentation to investors:)
On Wednesday, Service Corporation reported its spring earnings - another banner quarter, with almost $1 billion in sales and $135 million in profits. As Tom Ryan, the company’s chief executive, told investors and Wall Street analysts:
I think that COVID cases on a national basis… it's just not material to our numbers. So like we tried to point out at investor day, I think we're experiencing -- we're servicing elevated numbers of consumers. [Or, in English, having more funerals and cremations.]
Ryan went on to offer several potential explanations for the growth in death:
And you'd say, OK, what is that, Tom? Well, we've mentioned a little bit, we think there's still excess deaths. We think we can correlate it with lack of healthcare, people probably drinking too much, smoking too much, driving too fast, depression and access to mental health.
The problem with these explanations… is that none of them make sense. Smoking and obesity take decades to kill, and drinking usually takes a decade or more. Overdoses are way up and traffic accidents are higher too, but not nearly enough to account for the overall rise in deaths.
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Delays in health care would likely have only a tiny effect - and it would have likely occurred during the epidemic, not months later, as people suffering heart attacks and strokes refused to go to hospitals for fear of catching Sars-Cov-2.
One telling piece of evidence on this front comes from Australia and New Zealand, which both locked down extremely hard and saw below normal death rates in 2020 and largely normal rates for most of 2021. Yes, locking down nursing homes is terrible for the people inside them and probably contributed to the deaths of residents. But those lockdowns have basically ended now.
Gee, I wonder what could be leading to all the excess non-Covid deaths we’ve suddenly seen in the last 12 months, not just in the United States but all over Western Europe and Australia too? Something definitely changed near the end of 2020, I just wish I could remember what…
Oh well. The mystery continues!
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