GM: Kicking the Habit

Michael Martineck
by Michael Martineck
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gm kicking the habit

General Motors has a monkey on its back: another monkey. Actually, three point one monkeys. Writing in the August issue of The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm “Tipping Point” Gladwell explored the possibility that GM’s need to support an enormous population of retired workers is dragging the company into the abyss. Although it’s not exactly a new idea, Mr. “Blink” applied a new tool to the job: the dependency ratio.

Economists use dependency ratios as an analytical tool to examine national economies. It’s a pretty simple concept. Imagine a single man bringing down $100k a year. Mr. Man’s got sufficient liquidity to buy a brand new Corvette. Now imagine the same guy making the same money married with 2.3 kids. He can only read about the joys of Corvette ownership (probably here, for free).

The single guy's supporting one person with one income, creating a one-to-one dependency ratio. Assuming his wife doesn't work, the married man’s living not-so-large at three-point-three-to-one. The more dependents a productive worker/economy must support, the less profitable and thus, financial viable, he/it is.

Gladwell’s article applies the dependency ratio to General Motors, casting retirees as company dependants. In 1962, GM had 464k active employees generating sufficient profits to support 40k retirees. The company’s dependency ratio was one to 11.6.

By 2005, GM had 141k active workers failing to provide sufficient profits to support 453k retirees. The General’s dependency ration has increased to a startling 3.2 to 1. In other words, every GM worker has 3.2 mouths to feed.

Productivity gains– related to just-in-time manufacturing and widespread automation– have helped mitigate the impact of GM’s retiree bulge. The General produces more cars with fewer workers than it did back in the early sixties. Unfortunately, this is a fact not a competitive advantage. Everyone in the automotive industry must do more with less. (Some automakers do it a lot better than GM, but that’s a ratio for another day.)

Ford and Chrysler are in similar straits, struggling to increase productivity (and profitability) to keep pace with their increasing dependency ratio. However, no company has as many retirees as The General. As the industry’s dependency “leader,” the enormous weight of their pension and health care obligations put the company at a huge competitive disadvantage.

General Motors would not be the first American company to collapse under the strain. Gladwell cites Bethlehem Steel as an example of a dependency ratio’s ability to destroy a business, if not an entire industry. In the ‘50’s, steel was one of America’s sturdiest, most important industries. Bethlehem stood at the top of the [slag] heap.

Competition from Germans and Japanese steel mills led to smaller and smaller proft margins. Bethlehem began to flounder. Between 1960 and 2000, the company shed 90% of its workforce. In 2001, Bethlehem Steel finally broke under its $7b pension and healthcare obligations, and filed for bankruptcy. Does any of this sound familiar?

Now the “good” news. After Bethlehem Steel’s pension fund was terminated in 2003, the company’s new owners restructured other obligations and started over. The new company’s dependency ratio sank to zero to one. The steelmaker turned a profit in six months, successfully competing against Germans, Japanese and the rest of the world.

The American auto industry in general– and General Motors in specific– understand the competitive disadvantages created by their “legacy costs.” And yet, GM, and now Ford, and soon Chrysler, are downsizing their business by offering union workers “buyouts”: lump sum payments that trim payrolls but do little to relieve their health care and pension costs.

In many ways, buyouts make sense. Cutting production and workforce lets you match supply with demand, and, hopefully, make a buck. But as the company chips away at its work force, it increases its dependency ratio. Buyouts mean fewer workers with even more people to support.

The only way out of the buyout trap: make more money per car. That’s tough to do when you’ve been selling discounts, rebates and finance programs for years, and your competitors don’t share your dependency problems. The margins in the auto industry have thinned like Kojak’s pate, especially in the low to mid-range market— GM’s unhappy hunting ground. Even the once mighty margins on light trucks and SUVs have taken a hit.

Unless GM can knock one (or ten) out of the park, the only way out of the dependecy trap is… volume. Back up two paragraphs and repeat.

Of course, GM can’t repeat. Every business cycle costs money; The General lost $8.6 billion last year. The repeat is actually a spiral; the plane without an engine kind. Spend, shed, spend more, shed more. In the end, the guy with 3.2 dependants will not be forced to ogle his single buddy’s ‘Vette. The company with 3.2 dependents per worker couldn’t afford to make it in the first place.

For most dependency problems, there’s a rehab program. For this particular affliction, it’s not twelve steps. It’s chapter eleven.

Michael Martineck
Michael Martineck

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2 of 32 comments
  • Jenni_p Jenni_p on Sep 23, 2006

    401k's were not available until 1978. The Bethlehem Pensions were turned over to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) ( ). They were able to turn over 2.6 Billion. The PBGC currently has deficit of over 26 Billion for last year. With Delta and Northwest Airlines dumping pensions to the PBGC, this will no doubt grow. The tax payers of course are on the line for this deficit. I predict in the next 10 years all company pensions will be either frozen, or turned over to the PBGC.

  • Kevin Kevin on Sep 25, 2006

    Pensions have always been a terrible idea, an artifact of mass stupidity and short-sightedness during a few decades of the 20th century. People in the past eras didn't have pensions, and people of the future won't have them, but we contemporaries are still stuck with the mess. It's been clear for the past century that people were living longer and longer and it's been clear for decades that fertility rates would tend to drop in prosperous countries, so there's been no excuse for ignoring that fact either for GM executives or government planners or politicians or anyone. I just wonder if GM execs of the past were aware of the risks and had a short-timer mentality, maybe they always figured they could declare bankruptcy in a pinch and shove the burden on the taxpayers, or what? As for social security, it's still an awful system but it won't go "bankrupt" (whatever that might mean for a government program) because the gov't will simply as necessary raise retirement age, reduce benefits, raise payroll taxes, borrow money. The government has a lot of levers and absolutely no legal obligation to live up to curent expectations. But it kills me that we let other countries such as Chile and even Canada(!) be more progressive in privatizing social security.

  • Lorenzo A union in itself doesn't mean failure, collective bargaining would mean failure.
  • Ajla Why did pedestrian fatalities hit their nadir in 2009 and overall road fatalities hit their lowest since 1949 in 2011? Sedans were more popular back then but a lot of 300hp trucks and SUVs were on the road starting around 2000. And the sedans weren't getting smaller and slower either. The correlation between the the size and power of the fleet with more road deaths seems to be a more recent occurrence.
  • Jeff_M It's either a three on the tree OR it's an automatic. It ain't both.
  • Lorenzo I'm all in favor of using software and automation to BUILD cars, but keep that junk off my instrument panel, especially the software enabled interactive junk. Just give me the knobs and switches so I can control the vehicle, with no interconnectivity of any kind.
  • MaintenanceCosts Modern cars detach people from their speed too much. The combination of tall ride height, super-effective sound insulation, massive power, and electronic aids makes people quite unaware of just how much kinetic energy is nominally under their control while they watch a movie on their phone with one hand and eat a Quarter Pounder with the other. I think that is the primary reason we are seeing an uptick in speed-related fatalities, especially among people NOT in cars.With that said, I don't think Americans have proven responsible enough to have unlimited speed in cars. Although I'd hate it, I still would support limiters that kick in at 10 over in the city and 20 over on the freeway, because I think they would save more than enough lives to be worth the pain.