GM aims to move "pension risk" off table

DETROIT Wed Sep 7, 2011 7:46pm EDT

United Auto Workers union member Carrie Attwood uses an ergonomic-arm to install a front seat in a Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle at General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan July 27, 2011. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

United Auto Workers union member Carrie Attwood uses an ergonomic-arm to install a front seat in a Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle at General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan July 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co (GM.N) recognizes that its pension deficit represents a risk to the company that management is hoping to take "off the table" for investors, Vice Chairman Steve Girsky said on Wednesday.

The automaker's pension plan in the United States was underfunded by $10.8 billion at the end of June, according to a slide presentation prepared by GM for an investor conference in New York. This does not include some $2 billion in stock the automaker put into the plan in January.

Analysts have said the automaker's pension shortfall is among the biggest risks to investors. The recent drop in interest rates compounds these issues because it increases the size of the underfunding.

"We want to take the pension risk off the table," Girsky said during the Credit Suisse Automotive & Transportation Conference.

Girsky told investors that GM did not know how much it will put into the fund next year. The automaker is not required to make any contributions to its pension fund until 2015.

"We don't have to put a penny into this thing until 2015 and there is a long runway from here to there," Girsky said. "That said, we think it's a risk. The idea is to de-risk the company."

GM's pension situation is "large and volatile," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a note this week.

Under GM CEO Daniel Akerson, the automaker has sought to maintain a "fortress balance sheet" with enough liquidity to support steady investment in product and technology.

But GM's pension deficit represents one of the major risks to the company, compounded by the fact that interest rates are now at their lowest level in decades. A pension is a fixed payment drawn by workers in retirement.

A lower interest rate increases the underfunding of GM's pension plan. U.S. Treasury prices fell to their lowest level in at least 60 years this week.

Analyst Jonas wrote in his note: "The U.S. pension plan represents by far the biggest potential call on cash for GM."

GM shares gained 6.6 percent to close at $22.86 on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman, editing by Matthew Lewis)