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Last Updated:  Monday, 10 March, 2003, 22:32 GMT
GE pension fund loses $5bn
GE banners
GE flagged its shortfall in the footnotes
The world's second most valuable company lost more than $5bn in 2002 as the stock market meltdown hammered its pension funds.

The loss at General Electric Corp is almost double the $2.88bn recorded the year before, and amounts to more than a third of the company's overall $15.1bn profits.

The figure does not appear in the main body of the company's financial report for 2002, published last Friday, in which - by normal accounting rules - it said it in fact earned $806m in pretax profits on the half-million member retirement plans.

Instead, the heavy loss can be found deep in the footnotes.

Different but legal

GE, whose ability to hit financial targets in recent years has been greatly assisted by pension fund earnings, is not alone in having widely divergent figures for the performance of its pension funds.

Research from actuarial and consulting firm Milliman USA published last year indicated that GE is one of many large US corporations whose profits are flattered by notional pension fund profits.

The 50 biggest companies in the US, the firm's study said, declared $9bn of pension fund income - even as sliding stock markets meant the funds actually recorded losses of $36bn.

But US accounting rules ask firms to use an "estimated rate of return" from their investment funds when figuring out their profits or losses, to smooth the effect of stock market gyrations.

So, experts point out, GE was well within the letter of the law by reporting its estimated profits prominently and its $5.25bn losses in the margin.


But some believe that the letter of the law is not good enough.

In his annual letter to shareholders of his Berkshire Hathaway vehicle, released the day after GE's figures were published, investment guru Warren Buffett dug into the issue.

"Beware of companies displaying weak accounting," he wrote. "If a company['s] ... pension assumptions are fanciful, watch out. When managements take the low road in aspects that are visible, it is likely that they are following a similar path behind the scenes."

The estimated rate of return - lowered by GE in 2002 to 8.5% a year from 9.5% - is still far too far out of step with the real rate.

In fact, the funds lost 11.67%, meaning that with $8bn of losses in the past two years the fund managers would have to perform heroically to make up the difference within a reasonable amount of time.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, in muscular mood in the wake of Enron and WorldCom, is now taking an interest in pensions reporting as well, saying that companies need to go beyond the legal minimums and make pension results as clear as possible.

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