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The primary pension at General Motors of Canada Co. erased a multibillion-dollar deficit and hit fully funded status a little more than a year after the last labour agreement in late 2016.

It’s a marked turnabout for the retirement plan, as its underfunding has long been a contentious matter between the company and its workers. And it represents some comfort in a time of uncertainty for GM’s Oshawa work force, which learned last month that the plant will close in 2019, as well as for taxpayers, far less likely to face the prospect of a GM pension-plan bailout.

At the end of December, 2017 – the most current official numbers – the General Motors Canadian Hourly-Rate Employees Pension Plan had assets of roughly $9.3-billion, representing 101 per cent of the estimate of what the plan must pay out to its 33,557 members. The Globe and Mail obtained the figures from a source with access to the pension plan’s actuarial valuation report, which is only available to the company, the provincial pension regulator and the plan’s beneficiaries. The Globe granted anonymity to the source because they were not authorized to share the figures.

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In September, 2016, when GM and its union negotiated its most recent contract, the plan had a $2.6-billion deficit. Part of the agreement was that GM would fully fund the pension plan, said Corey Vermey, director of pensions and benefits at Unifor, the union that represents GM’s hourly workers.

The plan reached full funding through a combination of injections of cash by GM and the investment performance of the assets, although GM declined to say how much each contributed. Pension plans can also see their funding status swing as interest rates or other financial assumptions change.

“Certainly market conditions assisted them in this task, and most recently the rise in interest rates, but they did accept the risk in that undertaking in any event,” Mr. Vermey said.

The plan is a defined benefit plan, meaning the payments to its members are specifically defined, and the plan sponsor, in this case GM, has to put the money in and invest it properly to keep the promises. Because of that, these plans are increasingly unpopular with employers – and GM persuaded its labour unions to allow new hires after the 2016 agreement to be placed in defined contribution plans, where the burden of the retirement outcome falls on the worker, instead.

“Our pension funds are well funded through our ongoing Canadian sales and other operations,” GM Canada spokesman David W. Paterson said. “In 2009, we strengthened our funding levels with a $4-billion payment and we continue to meet all Ontario requirements for funding.” (About $3.3-billion of the $4-billion went into the hourly plan, with the rest going to the plan for salaried workers.)

GM operates four pension plans in Ontario. The primary plan, with its 33,557 members, serves hourly workers at Oshawa, St. Catharines and Woodstock, while a smaller plan serves salaried workers at those locations. GM also operates separate plans for hourly and salaried workers at its CAMI plant in Ingersoll, because that plant was once a joint venture, with ownership shared by another company.

The hourly plan is dominated by retirees – less than 10 per cent of the plan’s members are active GM workers.

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The company’s annual report to shareholders says GM made US$1.15-billion in contributions to its “non-U.S.” plans, which would also include pensions in Britain and other countries.

GM agreed to make extra pension contributions in 2009 and after, as part of its financial-crisis bailout by the province of Ontario and the Canadian federal government. As part of that deal, the hourly and salaried plans were pulled out of Ontario’s Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund and GM pays no insurance premiums.

That means there’s no formal legal protection for GM retirees’ pension benefits if General Motors of Canada becomes insolvent – something that’s far less likely to be a problem with a fully funded plan.

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