High Stakes Move

Article excerpt

To fulfill its enormous pension fund obligations, General Motors turns to riskier investments.

On the 16th floor of the General Motors Building in midtown Manhattan, W. Alien Reed is fixed on the number nine, as in 9 percent. That's the annual return he must make when investing GM's pension fund to meet the company's daunting obligations. Facing the largest pension fund shortfall of any U.S. corporation - $25 billion-GM last year floated an extraordinary $17.6 billion bond issue. That relieved the immediate financial pressure, but now comes the hard part of continuing to keep the pension fund afloat.

As CEO of GM's Asset Management, the largest corporate pension fund in the nation, Reed has $86 billion to invest. Even with that kind of financial muscle, not to mention the dont of the General Motors name, lie will have to perform like Lance Armstrong to achieve his goal.

Consider the following: The bond market is at historic lows; the stock market has failed to fully recover from the dot-com bust and continues to be choppy; six-month Treasury bills are yielding just 1.73 percent; and six-month certificates of deposit 1.32 percent. So how does Reed expect to pull it off?

He's mapped out an investment strategy that carries a remarkable degree of risk for a company as conservative as GM. Given the current state of the markets, Reed has reduced the company's reliance on stocks and corporate bonds in favor of less conventional and riskier alternatives snch as junk bonds, emerging markets, real estate investment trusts and the slick science of arbitrage. It's not the first time GM has made such bets, but the stakes have never been this high.

Due to the size of its work force, General Motors has colossal pension obligations. Its pension plan covers 452,000 retirees and their spouses, plus 195,000 active employees in the United States. The company pays $6 billion in annual benefits, as GM employees are living longer and using up more of the pension funds.

At least one expert questions the logic of the company's strategy. "It's troubling to hear that the way GM thinks of dealing with underfunding is by taking more risk," says Jeffrey R. Brown, a professor at the University of Illinois business school and a former senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. He says that while the risks under GM's plan involve different markets and therefore don't move in tandem, they also may not bring the expected high returns. "Maybe," says Brown, "GM should re-examine the appropriateness of a 9 percent return."

General Motors officials staunchly defend the pension-fund investment strategy and say they have solid ways of managing the risks. "The strategy is designed to reduce volatility," says Jerry Dubrowski, a GM spokesman. He notes that GM's pension fund has made a 9- to 10-percent return for the past 1S years in good markets and bad, and that GM sees no need to lower its investment goals.

Pension underfunding, of course, is a national problem. At midyear, U.S. corporate pension plans were underfunded by a total of $278.6 billion, according to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a government agency that insures benefits for 44 million Americans enrolled in roughly 30,000 plans. The agency faced a $9.7 billion deficit from covering failing plans. United Airlines shocked both the pension agency and its own employees in late July when it deferred a required quarterly payment of $72 million to its pension fund and planned no further payments while it remained in bankruptcy proceedings. The problem of pension underfunding stems from a confluence of forces: the nation's rising number of retirees, a drop in stock prices and historically low interest rates. …