Saturday, January 10, 2009

Big 3 pension gap grows

Feds warn of risks in rising $41B shortfall
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The outgoing director of the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. warned Friday that Detroit's Big Three automakers face a $41 billion pension shortfall.

While the companies continue to meet government funding requirements, the situation raises concerns for the agency, which takes over pensions when companies fail, given the financial problems facing the struggling auto industry.

"We're not trying to tell people that the pension house is on fire," Charles E.F. Millard said in an interview. "The point is that in many ways this has a similar look to other situations, such as a Bethlehem Steel."

The pension corporation assumed the pensions of 95,000 people at Bethlehem Steel in 2002, when the company filed for bankruptcy, and ended up on the hook for $3.7 billion in pension costs. That plan was underfunded by $4.2 billion.

Millard said policymakers need "a clear understanding of the magnitude of the numbers and the risks" associated with the automakers.

In total, the Big Three pensions cover nearly 1.3 million people. If all three automakers were to collapse and turn their plans over to the pension corporation, the agency estimates it would pay out $13 billion of the $41 billion, because of limits set by Congress on how much the pension corporation can cover. The agency generally has a yearly cap of $54,000 in benefits for people who are 65.

A $13 billion payout would more than double the agency's $11 billion deficit.

"It is certainly possible that none of these companies ever files for bankruptcy," Millard said. "It is certainly possible that they all do." He said the risk to the agency "is significantly greater than it was six or seven months ago."

As of Nov. 30, the pension plans for hourly and salaried workers at General Motors Corp. had a combined deficit of $20 billion and Ford Motor Co. had an $11.7 billion deficit, according to Millard; Chrysler LLC had a $9.3 billion deficit as of Jan. 1. ...More

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