General Motors’ Losses Hidden by Deferral of Union Pension Obligations

Any General Motors bonds issued this year will be classified as junk by a key ratings agency.  Why?  There’s some risk GM will go bankrupt again, and it hasn’t really returned to profitability, the way it appeared to have. That’s because GM’s recent quarterly profit, which came after years of losses and tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, was artificially created by the temporary deferral of billions of dollars in pension obligations that it owes to the United Auto Workers union.  Those unfunded pension obligations have risen by $6 billion since the end of 2009.  As Charles Lane of The Washington Post notes,

[A] little-noticed October 6 report from Fitch, the ratings agency, which highlighted the major unresolved issue of the bailout: pension obligations to its United Auto Workers employees. The union successfully resisted efforts to trim this long-term burden on the company through the bankruptcy process, and they continue to weigh heavily on the company’s future. Specifically, GM’s relatively robust free cash position – one of its major selling points in its pending IPO – is being artificially propped up by the fact that it is not yet legally required to make multi-billion-dollar payments into its ‘heavily underfunded’ U.S. pension funds. How underfunded are they? Well, the U.S. plans alone are $17 billion underfunded as of the end of 2009, Fitch says. When you include global operations, the total is $27 billion. . . GM’s pension obligations are actually $6 billion higher than they appeared at the end of 2009.

These obligations will likely have far more impact on GM’s financial future than the recent revelations that it lied about the Chevy Volt, which it was trumpeting in a “publicity stunt” to curry favor with politicians crusading against global warming.

Earlier, GM lied about whether it had paid back taxpayers for its bailout, which resulted in GM getting $50 billion in taxpayer money, and its finance arm GMAC getting another $17 billion.  (GM also received billions indirectly from taxpayers, through programs like the incredibly wasteful Cash for Clunkers, which cost  used-car and car-parts dealers billions.)

The Obama administration used the bailouts to keep the United Auto Workers’ massive compensation (worth up to $70 an hour), pension benefits, and rigid union work rules largely intact, while giving the UAW a big chunk of General Motors‘ stock, even though the UAW helped bankrupt the company.  The auto bailouts were so wasteful and so biased in favor of the UAW that they disturbed even the liberal Washington Post editorial board.

Another reason for treating GM bonds as junk is the way the Obama administration mistreated GM’s past bondholders.  It engineered the wiping out of General Motors’ bondholders, some of whom were non-union employees who had invested their life savings in the company, so that the GM stock that the Obama administration was giving the UAW would be worth more.

GM also faces increased regulatory burdens, such as CAFE rules ratcheted up in the name of global warming  (the initial tightening of those rules will wipe out at least 50,000 jobs in the auto industry), that will make it hard for it to expand its anemic 19 percent market share.  Other EPA global warming rules are expected to wipe out at least 800,000 American jobs and impose heavy costs on suppliers of materials used in manufacturing automobiles.  The EPA’s proposed ozone rules would wipe out 7.3 million jobs, according to one study.