A fleetful of announcements
After bitter cuts in pay and benefits, GM still has a hard road ahead of it.
By Carol J. Loomis, FORTUNE editor-at-large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - After a board meeting that must have been a marathon, General Motors made a fleetful of announcements: Its dividend would be cut by half (to 25 cents a quarter), its top five executives would take pay cuts, and its salaried employees would take one more hit -- there have several before -- in their benefits.

The only thing that didn't get announced is what is to happen to GM's finance subsidiary. General Motors Acceptance Corp., a majority interest in which GM (Research) has been trying to sell for months. (See The Tragedy of General Motors, FORTUNE). The likelihood there is that the GM board has not yet seen a deal that would guarantee GMAC the good credit ratings it badly needs. What it probably has seen instead are proposed deals in which private equity firms are heavily involved -- and those deals aren't apt to look good to the rating agencies, which do not see these firms as providing the strong, enduring financial strength that GMAC needs.

The Tragedy of General Motors
The Detroit giant is a weird, scarred combination: a carmaker doing poorly, and an insurance company engulfed by its obligations. It's heading for a wreck -- which is why CEO Rick Wagoner has the toughest job in business. (Full story)

The other announcements were preceded by the election of Jerry York, advisor to shareholder Kirk Kerkorian and his Tracinda Corp., to GM's board. The directors then took many of the steps that York had urged in a January speech, in which he argued that GM needed to embrace "equality of sacrifice," so as to convince its union, the UAW, that everybody was in the give-up game.

If the dividend got cut 50 percent, so did two other compensation arrangements. The board reduced its own pay from $200,000 to $100,000, and CEO Rick Wagoner accepted a cut of the same percentage. In 2004, the last year for which data are available, Wagoner's base pay was $2.2 million, so it looks as if he's headed down to $1.1 million -- which in the pantheon of CEO compensation is very low. Three other top officers got cut by 30 percent, and another by 10 percent.

York had suggested that other salaried employees take pay cuts also, but the board elected instead to reduce their benefits. GM is capping what it will pay to finance the retiree health benefits of salaried workers and may, in addition, impose new cost burdens on these employees in the future if health costs continue to explode. On top of that, GM is planning to make changes in its pension plan that apparently will freeze the amounts that salaried employees are due.

The bitterness of the cuts hitting salaried employees is that these can be legally imposed by GM without these employees having anything to say about it. On the union front, the situation is dramatically different: There, the workers are covered by a contract. If GM wants to reduce retiree health benefits, as it did last year, the company has to arduously negotiate with the union to make it happen.

One of the few optimistic things there are to say about GM is that last year it did get the union to accept some cuts. But even that bit of progress isn't certain, because the deal between GM and the union must be approved by a federal judge before it is final.

Making one other announcement, GM said Stanley O'Neal, CEO of Merrill Lynch, would leave the GM board. O'Neal pleaded that the time demands of being a director were too heavy and indicated also that his being both head of Merrill and a GM director could create conflicts difficult to handle.

Solid though those reasons seem, O'Neal probably had a third: a desire to get off the board of this company that still has so much travail ahead of it. Top of page

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