Boeing and Ford Face Pension Issues Head-On

The market surged yesterday after the Federal Reserve announced it would begin tapering its $85 billion monthly bond-buying program by $10 billion in January. The surge was surprising to many as the market had reacted negatively each time anyone even considered beginning to taper the asset purchases. Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) is trading slightly higher, up 0.05% just before 3 p.m. EST. This came after jobless claims for the week ended Dec. 14 rose 10,000 to 379,000 -- higher than the expected 334,000 mark. In other news, two big industrial companies are dealing with one of the top problems facing large corporations: underfunded pension plans.

Boeing's 777X Dominated sales at the Dubai airshow. Photo credit: Boeing.

Inside the Dow Jones, Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) is still playing hardball with up to 22 states that are competing to house production of its next-generation 777X aircraft. As it stands Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant produces 777 aircraft; relocating manufacturing would certainly run into problems and potential production delays.

Washington state wants the jobs and that gives Boeing leverage to try to change its defined benefit pension retirement to a 401(k)-style contribution plan, as most large corporations are trying to do.

Boeing originally offered an eight-year contract extension to the machinists union that would have secured 777X production for Washington. The union rejected the offer by a 2-1 vote in November; its leaders refused to even bring a revised offer to a vote more recently.

For many the decision is a difficult one. "I understand the fear of losing their job," said Kevin Flynn, who has worked at Boeing for 17 years and was at the union hall Wednesday to show his support for District 751 President Tom Wroblewski. "But at the same time, it is foolish to vote away a fixed pension," he said, according to the Seattle Times.

Boeing isn't the only large corporation facing difficult pension issues, and Ford (NYSE: F  ) has tackled the problem successfully this year.

Large corporations with defined benefit plans must pour assets into long-term investments to equal what they owe employees down the road -- a large risk to bear. Those obligations are based on discount rates, which are sitting extremely low, causing obligations to soar.

Consider that Ford's pension plan was underfunded to the tune of $18.7 billion at the end of last year. Ford's cross-town rival General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) has an even rougher situation, with an astoundingly underfunded pension of $27.8 billion.

Until discount rates rise these large corporations will have to pour valuable cash into pension funds, money that could be spent elsewhere for profitable growth. Fortunately for Ford investors, it has tackled the problem head-on.

Ford has consistently stepped up its contributions to the pension fund, including a projected $5 billion this year. It also embarked on a voluntary lump-sum program that would offer retirees a package and wipe risk off of Ford's books.

The program this year, combined with slowly rising discount rates and Ford's cash contributions, have cut the automaker's underfunded pension nearly in half. That means it's now underfunded by roughly $10 billion, compared to $18.7 billion -- a huge win for investors as a large chunk of risk and obligations have faded.

That means going forward Ford can find other uses for discretionary cash that it has been throwing at its pension fund -- perhaps to help offset costs during next year's ambitious global launch of 23 new or substantially refreshed vehicles.

Large corporations, especially Ford, GM, and Boeing, will face pension headwinds while discount rates remain below. However, tackling the problem will provide them with cash to put toward growth opportunities in the medium to long term.

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