Monday, October 01, 2007

GM: The free lunch that isn't

Last week, the deal between GM and the UAW to end the strike was hailed in the press almost as a miraculous solution that will save health benefits for current and retired workers and resotre the automaker's competitiveness.

The UAW will manage the health benefits plan as a trust separate from the firm, which won't have to pay those crippling health care contributions from now on. This article by The Economist illustrates the tone followed in much of the coverage.

Sounds like a free lunch? We should know better and so should the press.

To get rid of its health care obligations, GM will have to deposit a lot of money into the VEBA trust. Where will it come from? From its shareholders' pockets, as its contribution will be paid in GM stock (thorough convertible notes).

Would it be any different if the firm made a secondary share offering and kept managing the health plan? Nope, unless I'm missing some sort of fiscal angle. Nor are workers much better off risk-wise, since they will still be tied financially to GM's stock performance.

Actually, the fact that this deal wasn't struck long ago (it's not as if this problem is a recent one) is telling. It's another sad reminder of the low quality of most financial journalism that even The Economist falls for this smoke-and-mirrors trick so easily.