Decisions that the government will make soon on the future of General Motors and Chrysler could accelerate the decline of traditional pension plans, which have sheltered generations of workers from an impoverished old age.
Pension experts predict that a government takeover of the two giant plans would spur other auto companies and all types of manufacturers to abandon such benefits for competitive reasons.
For hundreds of thousands of retired autoworkers, a federal pension takeover would mean sharply reduced benefits. For the federal agency that insures pensions, it would mean a logistical nightmare in the short term — and most likely a slow demise eventually as fewer and fewer small plans remain in the system and pay premiums.
So far, the prospect of a grueling grind through bankruptcy court has been a major deterrent to companies that might want to rid themselves of pension obligations. But retirement and labor specialists are watching closely to see whether the administration’s auto task force will give either of the auto companies an easier way to shed their huge pension funds, blazing a simplified trail for others to follow.
With or without a bankruptcy filing, the government is quietly making the preparations that would be needed to take over Chrysler’s pension plan, with its 255,000 participants, according to government officials.
Even if Chrysler manages to strike a deal to sell many of its assets to Fiat, perhaps in conjunction with a bankruptcy filing, experts doubt Fiat will agree to take on its pension plan without extraordinary assistance. One possibility being considered is a cash infusion of $1 billion from Daimler, which previously owned Chrysler and had agreed to backstop a pension failure for several years.
The future of General Motors’ pension plan is also unclear. GM has until June 1 to come up with an acceptable business plan. If it declares bankruptcy, it still may try to keep its pension plan afloat. GM’s plan for hourly workers, which covers 485,000 people, was in reasonably good shape until last fall’s market turmoil, and would not require cash contributions until 2013.
If one or both of these plans collapse, the federal agency that insures pension benefits, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., will lose a big source of the premium revenue it collects from companies with pension funds. But more important, the demise of the bellwether auto plans might set a template for other companies seeking to cut costs and stay competitive.
“If one of these companies solves its pension problem by shunting it off to the federal government, then for competitive reasons the others have to do the same thing,” said Zvi Bodie, a professor of finance at the Boston University School of Management and longtime observer of the government’s pension insurance system. “That is the death spiral.”
Though the automakers’ plans each have a gap between what they have on hand and what they owe their retirees over the years, if they failed, most of that shortfall would be made up by workers in the form of smaller benefits — not by the companies or the government.