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General Electric Cuts $2.4 Billion Off S&P-Worst Pension Deficit

Rick Clough, Brandon Kochkodin

General Electric Co. trimmed its pension deficit by $2.4 billion as the manufacturer tackles the worst shortfall in corporate America.

The $28.7 billion deficit is down about 8 percent from the prior year, according to a regulatory filing late Friday. The company closed 2017 with $100.3 billion in obligations across its pension plans and $71.6 billion in assets.

Pension funding has become a central issue for GE stakeholders concerned about how the beleaguered company will meet its obligations while dealing with severe cash-flow and earnings challenges. The sizeable tab complicates Chief Executive Officer John Flannery’s efforts to turn GE around through changes to the structure of the Boston-based conglomerate.

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While it’s not uncommon to have an underfunded pension, GE’s deficit at the end of 2016 was the biggest among S&P 500 companies and 50 percent greater than any other corporation in the U.S. GE’s rank for 2017 won’t be known until all companies release annual reports, but among those that have filed, the $28.7 billion shortfall still ranks as the largest.

The decrease in the deficit was due primarily to “investment performance, employer contributions and changes in mortality and salary assumptions,” GE said in the filing. That helped offset an increase in liabilities, which are affected by long-term interest rates. GE also said it’s reducing expectations for long-term investment returns to 6.75 percent from 7.5 percent.

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GE was little changed after regular trading Friday. The shares have fallen 17 percent this year, the worst in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

GE’s pension plans cover about 618,000 current and former employees. The primary plan, one of the biggest in the U.S., includes about 439,000 of those people.

The pension was well funded for many years, but the deficit grew over the past decade because of low interest rates and volatile financial markets. The pension trust also holds more than 30 million GE shares, which have declined by more than 50 percent in the last year.

Following a management overhaul in mid-2017, GE took steps to shore up the pension, including a move announced in November to borrow $6 billion to pre-fund the plan through 2020.

GE also benefits from rising interest rates: Every quarter-point increase cuts $2.4 billion from the amount the company will owe its pension plan participants, GE has noted.

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