Pension time bomb: The shadow hanging over GM's turnaround

Friday, August 27, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA has a riposte for critics of his decision to rescue General Motors and Chrysler: You can't argue with success. And much good news has emanated from Detroit of late, especially from GM. Having wiped out almost all of its debt through an administration-orchestrated bankruptcy process, slashed excess plants and streamlined operations, GM is once again turning a profit: $2.2 billion so far in 2010. Sales are up; promising new models are coming to market. GM's aggressive new management is planning a public stock offering, which would let the Treasury Department start unloading the 61 percent stake it bought for nearly $50 billion. U.S. officials speak of escaping with modest losses -- a small price for averting industrial catastrophe.

All true -- up to a point. But the company's stock prospectus points to several reasons for caution, including such obvious ones as the sluggish U.S. economy and overcapacity in global auto manufacturing. And then there's a threat that the Obama-supervised bankruptcy did not address: the precarious condition of GM's immense pension plans.

With almost $100 billion in liabilities, GM's defined-benefit plans for U.S. employees (one covers a half-million United Auto Workers members, another, 200,000 white-collar personnel) are the largest of any company in America. Yet they were underfunded by $17.1 billion as of the end of 2009, and the underfunding had only slightly lessened, to $16.7 billion, as of June 30. (Chrysler has a similar problem, on a smaller scale.) Having been filled with borrowed money before Chrysler's bankruptcy, the funds can limp along for a couple of years. But, as GM's prospectus acknowledges, federal law will require it to start pumping in "significant" amounts by 2014 if not sooner. GM does not say exactly how much, but an April Government Accountability Office report suggested that a $5.9 billion injection might be required initially, with larger ones to follow. In other words, any investor who buys GM stock is buying stock in a firm whose revenue is already partially committed to retired workers.

When companies go bankrupt, their underfunded pensions often are taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), a government-run, industry-funded insurance agency, which then pays retirees a fraction of what they were owed. But that didn't happen in the GM-Chrysler bankruptcy. The UAW resisted what would have been a huge reduction in the generous benefits of its members, especially the many who retire before age 65. And the Obama administration chose not to push back.

The net effect is that the pension time bomb is still ticking. If GM earns robust profits, even more robust than it is making now, the bomb won't detonate. Otherwise -- well, in a worst-case scenario, GM winds up back in bankruptcy, with PBGC intervention both unavoidable and more expensive than it would have been last year. And that could necessitate a bailout from Congress, because of the PBGC's own deficits.

We're not offering investment advice -- just a dash of realism about a still-troubled industry, and a warning that its dependence on taxpayers may not be ended so easily.

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