Key legal and financial advisers for LTV Corp. meet today to develop a strategy to cope with assuming more than $2 billion in pension liabilities, a responsibility the company thought it had transferred to the federal government when it declared bankruptcy in 1987.
"We will start looking at all the options," said LTV Vice President Julian Scheer, a participant in the New York strategy session. He said it would be "a long grinding process."
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which insures pensions for more than 40 million workers, had the authority to order LTV, a Dallas-based steel and aerospace manufacturing company, to take back three pension plans that earlier had been taken over by the pension insurance agency.
The PBGC insures single-employer pensions in much the same way the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protects bank deposits.
PBGC officials said yesterday they would insist that LTV take back the plans, but indicated a willingness to negotiate payment schedules.
"This is the first time pension plans have been restored, and to some extent we're writing on a little bit of a clean slate as to how the rules apply to a situation like this," said PBGC general counsel Carol Connor Flow. "We would hope there might be some flexibility there."
Besides throwing a curve into LTV's strategic planning, the Supreme Court ruling is expected to make it harder for bankrupt companies to dump their pension liabilities on the federal government in an effort to lighten their balance sheets and improve their financial positions.
For both industry and government, the LTV case also is apt to serve as a template for future pension regulation as the PBGC negotiates with a number of other companies in financial trouble.
PBGC Executive Director James Lockhart has said there are at least a half dozen companies, primarily in the steel and airline industries, that are negotiating with PBGC over their pension liabilities.
LTV insists it cannot afford to take back the plans without jeopardizing its efforts to emerge from bankruptcy.
"We still hold to the same position we've had all along that it's difficult to see how we can reorganize this company with the burden of those three pension plans," Scheer said.
By not having to pay into its pension plans at a time when steel industry profits hit their peak, LTV has been able to build up $1 billion in cash -- an amount the government claims is more than enough to cover the cost of taking back the plans. The company says if it uses the money to fund the pension plans, it will have a hard time satisfying creditors.
Although precise figures are unavailable, LTV's immediate liability to the PBGC and to the plans is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Its longer-term pension liability to its employees is $2.3 billion.
LTV is faced with several choices, none of them easy. "There are a number of options open to us," Scheer said. "You could go for a re-termination of the plans, you could negotiate with the PBGC, or you could let the plans run out."
The PBGC emphatically rejected any suggestion of LTV once again terminating the plans.
"I can tell you we will vigorously resist that," Flow said, adding that the company would have to meet a "distress test" for every one of its 120 subsidiaries before it could terminate a plan.
Flow also said the company would not be allowed to simply deplete the assets of the three plans and then shut them down. Short of a corporate liquidation, LTV would have to continue to fund the plans, she said.
Two other players at the pension negotiating table will be the United Steelworkers union, which represents nearly 100,000 active and retired LTV workers, and the Internal Revenue Service.