Photo by Elaron
As predicted, at least two of the Big Three auto makers are headed into an out-of-court workout orchestrated and likely financed by the U.S. government. My new favorite quote is from Nancy Pelosi: "We call this the barbershop. Everybody's getting a haircut here . . . ." She included management in the list of parties who will be called on to make concessions--including dumping those fancy corporate jets (talk about bad PR!)--in exchange for government financing of the workout (let's just call it DIP financing, shall we). The W$J story aptly compares the workout procedure to bankruptcy, which is, of course, exactly what's going on here, though the informal process will lack both the psychological stigma of "bankruptcy" and the muscle that the Bankruptcy Code would provide in dealing with leases and intransigent holdout creditors. The primary purpose of Chapter 11, in my view, is to allow a majority-approved workout plan to be forced--"crammed down," as we say--on dissidents. I guess the gravitas of the U.S. government will be the 800-pound gorilla in this deal.
I'm getting closer to figuring out who will be sitting in the barber's chair in the Tribune Company bankruptcy, too, especially in terms of employee retirement and other claims. It seems that we have good news and bad news.
The good news is that, while 100% of the company's stock is held by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), very little time has passed since that plan took over the compay's equity, so employees apparently have made no concessions or contributions to the plan, which will now likely be wiped out in the bankruptcy. While the employees are technically the beneficiaries of the stock held by the ESOP, the trust obtained the stock through a $250 million loan from the company, so employee rights in the stock would have vested only over time as the the company reduced the ESOP trust's debt by making annual contributions to the ESOP. Since this hasn't happened yet, the employees will really lose next to nothing in terms of retirement assets--thank goodness. Most of this is explained in a wonderful note by Corey Rosen, executive director of the National Center for Employee Ownership. Ironically, from the employee retirement assets perspective, it's probably actually a rather good thing that the company sought bankruptcy earlier rather than later (before it put lots of employee retirement contributions into the ESOP black hole). The compay's "pension plan," which closed last year, seems to be safely outside the bankruptcy case in a fully-funded $1.8 billion trust (beneficiaries with "frozen" pension rights should be safe). The same is true of the 401(k) plan set up by the company, but to which the company discontinued making employer contributions when the ESOP was set up.
The bad news seems to be that the the primary part of the three-part Tribune employees' future retirement plan seems to be up in the air now. The first, a "cash balance," low-risk money fund that will hold planned 3% annual cash contributions (the first to be made in 2009), will apparently be unaffected (though one wonders what future contributions will be). As for the second part of the plan, employees can continue to contribute themselves to a 401(k) account (though employer contributions were suspended last year). The cornerstone of the company's post-2008 retirement plan, however--the ESOP--will in all likelihood be gutted in the bankruptcy. In addition, as described in this fantastic New York Times summary of the situation, the "little guys" with the most to lose are those who recently accepted buy-outs and severance deals. This includes folks like a reporter mentioned in the NYT story who just sent in his paperwork to accept a buy-out equal to 49 weeks' pay (severance for more than 24 years of work)--a deal that is now in jeopardy as these types of people join the ranks of unsecured creditors. Luckily for these folks, up to $10,950 per person of such claims, earned within 180 days of yesterday (the filing date), will be § 507(a)(4) "priority" unsecured claims, which get to budge in line ahead of the general unsecured creditors (probably including the banks and bondholders).
It's a sad, rainy day in Chicago today. One of the most beloved institutions in town is in bankruptcy, and our governer was arrested by the FBI this morning, charged with corruption (more "pay-to-play" allegations leveled at yet another Illinois governer). I, for one, am looking forward to a brighter 2009!